Wednesday, December 13, 2017

We Go to Bethlehem on Foot

Living Nativity at Memorial United Methodist Church, Clovis, California
Memorial United Methodist Church, Clovis, California
Last Saturday and Sunday night, Merced, California, was the City of David. At least that’s how the guide at the Living Nativity explained Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem -- he compared the distance they traveled to the distance between Clovis to Merced.

So we managed to walk all the way to Merced, er, Bethlehem on Sunday night. (Or we walked around the church and into the sanctuary. Still, it was a journey.)

Confession time: we’ve been to this church building before. We visited a Hmong service a few months ago (it took two tries), and Mindy’s been to their thrift store several times. That’s where she heard about the church’s live nativity, and we decided it wouldn’t really count as a repeat.

A centurion greeted each group of new arrivals, announcing that Caesar Augustus had commanded everyone to go to their ancestral home for a census. (More quietly, he directed us to the table where we were to register for our tour. Everyone was assigned a letter for a “census” group, along with a number. We were in group D) As we waited for our tour, we stood by the fire, which felt quite nice. The fire doubled in the program as a couple men from the church cooked hot dogs over the blazing logs.

With our guide, we followed a sidewalk lined with luminaria to the first scene: Mary being visited by an angel, Gabriel. (The Scripture called the angel a “he,” but the angels we saw during our walk all looked female. Scripture also indicates that gender might not even be a thing with angels.) We found Mary cooking matzo bread when the angel brought the news that she would be the mother of the world’s Savior. There was then taped music of “Love was Born at Christmas”.

We next visited Joseph who seemed to have fallen asleep while snacking on the same bread Mary had been baking. After the angel’s announcement about the coming Messiah, we had live singers lead us in singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” (They said we were all welcome to join the church choir.)

Off we went to see another angelic announcement when the shepherds were given the good news of the baby in the manger. Our guide (in standard church Biblical costume/bathrobe) told us that Scripture said that a “multitude” of angels appeared to the shepherds, which could have been millions… or two. For budgetary reasons, I assume, we had two. Our guide also mentioned that the sheep these particular shepherds of Bethlehem were tending could well have been sold to the temple to be used as sacrifices for sin. The lively group of shepherds of different ages and shoe types (dress to tennis) reacted in a variety of ways to the angel’s announcement, and we all joined in singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” One of the shepherds seemed to be dancing her excitement about the newborn king.

Next stop was the Magi. Our guide noted that although there were three men in the scene and we sang “We Three Kings,” the Bible never says how many men came from the East, but that tradition has named three, probably came from the fact that three gifts were mentioned (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). The guide also pointed out that their wise men were obviously genuine wise men because they all had glasses.

The final stop was in the scene at the manger with Mary, Joseph and the Baby, joined by angels, shepherds, and their dog. (The dog never did make it into the manger, but it did make me think of that phrase, “dog in a manger,” which I never understood. So I looked it up when I got home. If you’re curious, follow this link.)

People were encouraged to stay as long as they wished at the nativity scene as Scripture was read and "Silent Night" was sung. It is a wonderful thing at Christmas to have time to stop and consider what it means that God Himself entered this world as a human baby.

After awhile, we left the sanctuary and went outside, where we could pick up one of those hot dogs we’d seen cooking. We brought our plates inside the fellowship hall where there were also drinks and cookies and flyers listing upcoming Christmas services. “Angels Among Us” is the church’s seasonal theme, and there was a photo op off to one side. You could get a picture of yourself with angel wings and a slogan of your choosing.

It was a nice night to hear again the Christmas story, sing carols, and eat warm snacks. The walk was nice too. We were glad we could make it to Bethlehem (if not Merced).

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

We Go to Church for Advent (and Pancakes)

Roger was wearing his Knights of Columbus apron when he stopped by our table. Someone asked if his wife was there yet, and he said he’d left her asleep at home. He said he’d pick her up in plenty of time for 11:00 am Mass. Nobody was criticizing Roger’s wife for sleeping in -- after all, the K of C pancake breakfast began at 6:00 am, and I’m sure Roger was there before that. I can’t blame her at all for staying in bed.

We didn't get there in time for 6:00 breakfast either, but we were there for 6:30 Mass; we went for breakfast after that. When we arrived at the church door as the service began, everything outside was still dark and chilly. We were trying to remember whether this was the earliest worship service we’d been to since we began this blog a little over two years ago, then remembered we went to an Easter sunrise service in Atlanta.

Still, it was an unusually early morning for us -- but not, it seemed, for many others. Though not at capacity, there was a good crowd for the service, and they weren’t just older folks. We saw a number of families with school aged and younger children and realized that this service time must be a real blessing for soccer families.

We entered the sanctuary a couple of minutes after the service began, so I believe we missed the announcements -- but not the musical prelude or opening hymn. There was no music in the service except for a line of Alleluias from the missal. (There were several other lines in the missal that had music, but we just spoke the words.) I don’t know if this service is always sans music or not. It could be they didn’t have a cantor for the morning or they might always skip music in that service to keep the running time tight. We did see someone with a guitar entering the church for the 8:00 am Spanish language Mass.

The priest leading Mass was from Africa (I’m guessing from his accent). I got to thinking about how much easier it is for the Catholic Church to move clergy to different countries and cultures. The service is the same everywhere, if one can just learn the language. (This would have been even simpler in the Latin always and everywhere days.)

His homily began with a story from the sinking of the Titanic illustrating the need for vigilance against icebergs, leading to a lesson for our need to be vigilant during Advent, looking for the Lord’s coming (and second coming). After the homily, an older couple lit the first Advent candle, with a special blessing for the beginning of this exciting season.

After the service I asked the priest whether he would be having pancakes, and he said, “No.” I wondered whether he is fasting festive things until Christmas, since Advent is a traditional season of fasting. At one point during the service, he’d mentioned that his vestments were the same as those for Lent, another season of waiting and preparation. (Aside from the Advent candles, the church won’t be decorated for Christmas until December 24th.)

We walked next door to Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, where the pancake breakfast and Christmas boutique were being held. Outside the door, donations were being taken for the church’s Saint Martha’s Pantry and for Toys for Tots.

The pancake breakfast was offered on a donation basis, no required minimum payment. All the servers were quite cheery, and we sat at a table with kindly retired folks who quite obviously were a part of the church, and greeted each other happily. When Roger stopped by, he asked Richard (seated next to Mindy) about his golf game. Richard said he hadn’t golfed for some time. Roger said he’d gone golfing the day before with his son who told him (after the game), “Dad, I’m not taking you golfing anymore. You’re losing too many of my good balls.” Roger said he’d also gotten a complaint from nearby fishermen. Too many of his balls went into the river, scaring the fish.

I’m sure the money raised by the breakfast and boutique will make many people’s Christmas season more joyful. This church’s activities have already made our Advent more joyful.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

We Go to our Mailbox (and our Inbox)

How churches respond to visitors
We don’t get much mail. Being on the road last year without a physical address seemed to discourage all but the most persistent junk mail from catching up with us. (Some still found us. It’s rather sad when we've sent a small amount to a charity that more than two years later, they’ve spent at least that much on requests for more money. We tossed those letters without opening, but one organization has followed us to three addresses, with no response on our part.)  

But we do get mail from churches. We go to a new church almost every week (though we didn’t this week, just went to the same one we attend most weeks), and MIndy faithfully fills out the response cards. Even though some churches never get around to mentioning where visitors can register their attendance, Mindy tracks it down if she can. Some churches ask visitors to  stand, even to introduce themselves. More than one church had ushers who handed us a card and pen and watched as we filled it.

Last year we didn’t have a physical address, only email, but this year we have both, and we often fill out both kinds of addresses. Strangely, some churches don’t offer a choice of which you’d prefer. They have their own preferences. We recently visited a church that announced they’d send a gift to our home. It turned out to be a gift certificate for a free burger (which could have probably been sent by email just as easily and more economically, though of course we're grateful for free food!).

It’s a very good thing for churches to reach out to visitors. It’s definitely worthwhile to thank visitors for coming and even better to offer opportunities for people to become involved if they choose. But there are some things we think could be improved.

For instance, Mindy usually fills out the cards, and she usually writes, “Dean and Mindy Anderson” because, you know, those are our names and she figures one registration card is enough. A number of times, we’ve gotten letters or emails addressed to “Dean” alone. Would they have been addressed to Mindy if she’d put “Mindy and Dean Anderson,” or was unthinking sexism at work?  It seems to us that if two names are on the card, two names should be on the letter.

Another occasional problem with giving an email address has been those churches that never stop sending emails. Like the charity that found us after every move, some churches don’t manage to ever take us off their mailing lists, even after we ask.

Sometimes those letters come with an assumption that the receiver is already excited about and committed to the church. “Now that you’re part of our family” is the tone -- even when we just visited once. I guess the next step after one visit is membership...and probably a place on one of their boards.

But any of this is preferable to churches that don’t follow through at all (or worse yet, make no effort to know who's at church on any given Sunday). A visitor who comes as a stranger and remains a stranger -- unless that's their choice -- indicates the church is not doing what the church is called to do, to be Christ’s representative to the world.

So those letters, whether electronic or snail, are good things. Even better is a greeting from a person in person that can lead to a real relationship, like some of those we've found since the start of this project.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

We Go to Church, and it's not about Baseball

Clovis Hills Community Church, Clovis, California
Jeremy Affeldt took an interesting theological stance on the Parable of the Sheep and Goats from Matthew 25. “The Son of Man on the Throne said, ‘Giants fans to the right and Dodgers fans to the left.’” People laughed, and Affeldt joked, “I’ve got the stage, I can do what I want.”

Affeldt pitched for the Kansas City Royals, the Colorado Rockies, and the Cincinnati Reds, but now that he’s retired, he’ll always be closely related to the San Francisco Giants, because it was as a setup pitcher that he earned his three World Series rings.

He was joking, of course. The Dodgers had fan representation in the house: Scott Hinman (“I’m one of the pastors here at Clovis Hills Community Church”) admitted, when he introduced Affeldt, that he was a Dodger fan. Hinman received some booing when he made that admission. Good natured kidding of the Dodgers continued as Affeldt spoke, particularly about Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw (“Kershaw has Cy Young Awards, which is cute; but it’s not a championship.”)

Obviously, many people were there because a major league player was speaking. That’s why we were there, too. We’d heard he’d be speaking from an Bonnie, who’s read this blog and contacted us months ago to visit a church together. She mentioned she’d be attending Saturday night’s service, and we asked if we could join her.*  

So Mindy and I drove out to Clovis on a dark autumn evening. The church campus is in a less developed part of town, so the large, lighted building stands out from a distance. The first time visitor parking spots were all full, but we found parking pretty nearby. We bypassed the Dutch Brothers coffee truck in front of the church (I didn't bypass the cookies right inside the door. Rice Krispies treats and chocolate chip were options.) We didn’t bypass the greeters at the door, who were quite friendly and hard to miss.

I took a seat, while Mindy met Bonnie. There was a good crowd, I’d guess about a thousand people there in the service.

During the announcements, Derek, the high school pastor, announced a high school baptism service coming soon. “If you’re in high school and say, ‘I don’t like going to my parents’ church’, well we have a service just for you.”

Several groups had teamed together with the church to bring Affeldt to speak at the church, including the Central Valley Justice Coalition, Breaking the Chains, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Affeldt told some of his life story. He grew up in Merced (about an hour from Fresno); playing the game from a young age. He remembered his father taking him to the Oakland Coliseum for an A’s game, watching Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco play (who looked like such big guys to him back in the day, and now he understands why they were so big). He remembered telling his dad he would play on that field someday, and one day, before a game, he called his dad from the field to say he was just about to play there.

But not all was well in his major league career. When he’d played for the Kansas City Royals, the team was not playing well, and he wasn’t pitching well. He didn’t like what he was doing, though when you tell people “I hate my job” they tend to be surprised when they learn you play major league baseball. He was happy when he was traded to the Colorado Rockies, and it was in Denver that God made a great change in his life.

Affeldt took a walk through the city and headed for a Starbucks. A young woman sat in front looking sad and battered. She was lost and scared, and he realized he felt the same. He bought her some food, and he felt happy to help someone. The joy he felt stayed with him as he went to the stadium that day.

He felt purpose as he played that day. He realized he could use his position to speak out for those without a voice; he could provide a platform to lift up those who were hurting. He researched the problem of poverty in the United States and eventually began a nonprofit that included the project, “Something to Eat” with the purpose of feeding children. He also worked to address the problem of those who need water, digging wells in Uganda.

Then Affeldt had another opportunity to change teams, and he wasn’t initially excited, even though playing for San Francisco would allow him to be closer to home and to play for a team that would be a contender. But he admitted that something held him back from wanting to play for the Giants: a fear of the city, which he considered “weird.” He ruefully admitted that homophobia was part of his problem.

Once he came to the Giants, his attitude changed. He was introduced to the problem of human trafficking. In the city, he met young men who had been kicked out of their homes when they came out as gay. Many of them turned to selling themselves to survive. Affeldt looked for ways address the problem and found support from the management and front office of the Giants. The Giants began (and continue to have) a “Not for Sale Day” which addresses the issue of modern slavery. Players were willing to donate a day’s pay to address the problem (which can add up, what with Major League baseball salaries).

Affeldt challenged the crowd at the church to consider how they can be serving Christ in the world. When he finished, Pastor Hinman reinforced the message by saying that at Clovis Hills, they try to remind people that they don’t “come to church.” They are the church, sent out to do Christ’s work in the world.

After the message, there was another video to present the ministry of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Started in the 1950’s, one its founders was Branch Rickey of Dodgers fame. The organization uses sports as a tool for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The overall message of the evening for Dodgers fans and Giants fans -- and even those who don’t care about baseball -- can do the work of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner; in general, meeting the needs of the needy. It’s a giant task, but it’s not one the church can dodge. (Sorry about that.)

*A sidebar: it was great to meet Bonnie. We’d love to meet you, too, especially if you know of an interesting ministry we could visit with you. We’d love to visit it with you. Just contact us through