Wednesday, March 29, 2017

We Go to Afternoon Church (or was it evening?)

bulletin for Grace Clovis Presbyterian Church, Clovis, California
We don’t hear enough about Amos, one of the minor prophets of the Old Testament. Back in high school, my youth pastor did a few Bible studies with me. First we work through the book of Hebrews, and then we went through the Book of Amos. I remember studying that book with a map.

Amos addresses Israel and tells them of the judgment coming to other nations. My youth pastor Barry pointed out that Amos starts with judgment on Israel’s neighbors -- which must have made the Israelites exclaim, “Preach it! Those heathens deserve your wrath!” Eventually, though, the warnings get a little closer to home, and Amos tells the Israelites that God’s wrath is coming to them because of their sin, wrath like a lion attacking its prey.

Grace Clovis Presbyterian Church, Clovis, California
As I said, Amos doesn’t seem to get preached often, but when we visited Grace Clovis Presbyterian Church, the congregation was working their way through the prophecy. The sermon focussed on chapter 3, verses 9 -15 the afternoon of our visit.

We went to the 4:00 pm Sunday service, which the bulletin described as the “evening service.” (During the sermon, the pastor said both, “this morning” and “this evening.” The latter was more accurate, but neither seemed quite appropriate for the time of day. It’s an afternoon service in my book.)

We were greeted by Pastor Brad Mills and his wife Carrie. We told them about our project of visiting churches, but mentioned that we had adopted The Bridge in Fresno as our home church for now. They told us they had met at the Bridge (back when it was called Fresno Evangelical Free Church; Carrie referred to it as “EVFree”). They told us Grace Clovis is a PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) church plant, a daughter church of Sierra View Presbyterian Church in Fresno. Grace started as a home Bible study in 2013 and had their first worship service in 2014.  They now have Sunday School at 8:00 am, morning worship at 9:00 am (where they’re working through Peter’s first letter to the Church), and the 4:00 pm service we attended.

Brad and Carrie have been pleased with the growth of the church. We learned that we were visiting on a low attendance day. Carrie mentioned that the night before they’d had a church game night, and a number of people had let her know they wouldn’t make it to the service.

The service began with a call to worship from Psalm 134. Singing led into a prayer time with an opportunity for people to share prayer requests (sometime that doesn’t happen in the morning service because the group tends to be larger).  One prayer request was for a house sale (“Many of you helped with the clean-up, and we are thankful”).  A young man, Chandler, hopes to go on a mission trip in the summer and is looking for wisdom (Japan or Cambodia?). One request was for the new widow who has been a missionary in France with her husband. He passed away suddenly two hours after preaching a sermon, and now she is trying to decide whether to continue to serve in France or to return to the States.

The responsive reading was questions 16,  17, and 18 from the Westminster Shorter Catechism along with their answers.  (I mentioned I don’t hear enough from Amos, but I also don’t hear enough from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It opens with one of the most profound things ever written outside of Scripture, “What is the chief end of Man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” I love the use of the word “enjoy.”) Brad said, “There is some important doctrine in the confession, but you should look up the Scriptural proofs that go with it.”

Brad’s sermon was titled “A Powerless People.” As a background for the passage, he mentioned some things from earlier chapters that I remember Barry bringing up way back when. The people of Israel were “Amening” the condemnation of their neighbors, but were not pleased when the judgment came to them. The Israelites were called out for what might today be called social justice failings. They were oppressing the poor, seeking their own hedonistic pleasures.

Amos uses the lion as an important symbol for justice. Since he was probably a shepherd, with the attendant worries of lions attacking his sheep, Amos may speak from his own experience when, in chapter 3, he uses rather grisly imagery of “when lions attack.” Because of the predominance of this symbol, Brad used a lion graphic for the sermon series. (Perhaps another reason I appreciate this book is because my brother works with big cats, including lions, through an organization he founded called Project Survival.)

In the sermon, Brad mentioned something he didn’t think we see enough of in the church -- church discipline. “We must be committed to practicing church discipline, but it is practically absent in the evangelical church today. We should be willing to submit to leadership. We need a distinct morality.”

Grace Clovis Presbyterian Church, Clovis, California
I found this interesting, because one of the more common things we hear when we talk about churches to people in bars to people is that they don’t want to be judged. And we’ve heard horrible stories about people rejected in churches because of the way they dress or the way they look or their life circumstances -- but does that mean there’s no place for discipline or judgment in the Church?

It might be a silly example, but I was thinking of athletes. What if, say, a figure skater said, “I don’t want to be judged. Let me just go out on the ice and do my thing, but no judgments. Still, a medal would be nice.”

That would be absurd.

But perhaps it’s just as absurd for those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ to expect to never be called out for our bad behavior. The people Amos was calling out were really hurting other people, and God wasn’t about to let such injustice slide. I don’t think the people we talk to in the bars would say, “Oh yes, if people are committing acts of violence and stealing from other people, it’s all cool. Don’t make it into a thing.”

It’s a quite different thing for a person to willingly submit to a church for accountability than for people to take it upon themselves to judge others.

Church discipline is not an easy or fun topic, but it’s important, and I was glad to hear Brad addressing it.

After church we talked to Justin and Jenny (whose son Chandler asked for prayer during the worship service). I asked what brought them to the church.

Justin said that they had moved from Mississippi last summer, and they came to the church because he already knew Brad -- they’d been in seminary together. Still, Justin said, “If I didn’t agree with the direction that Brad was taking the church, we would still be friends, but I’d go somewhere else.”

Jenny expressed her gratitude for people in the church who had helped them when they moved to the community.  “They are the nicest group of folks. They helped us set up our home. That’s the hands of Christ.”  

“It’s a community,” Justin added.

We were happy to be a part of the community, if only for one afternoon. Or evening. The time of day really doesn’t matter, I guess. What matters is that this church seems to be a place where God is at work.

Service Length: 1 hour 5 minutes
Sermon Length: 33 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were the first to arrive, so we stood out a bit. A number of people greeted us as they came in.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: None
Our Rough Count: 34
Probable Ushers’ Count: 40
Snacks: none
Musicians: keyboards (woman)
Songs: "MIghty to Save"
"God of Grace:
"Christ is Mine Forevermore"
"I Sing the Mighty Power of God"
Distance to Church: 5 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none

Church Website:

Thanks to Cate Mills, who Mindy asked to take three pictures of important things about the church. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

We Go to a Jazz Mass

Hope Lutheran Church, Fresno, California
“Go to Hell,” the soloist sang. In church!

The song was a part of the Sunday evening Jazz Mass. When we came into the sanctuary (a little early), two of sections of pews were roped off. The musicians were practicing, obviously enjoying playing and each other. As more people arrived and filled the rest of the room, the ropes were taken down.

Hope Lutheran Church, Fresno, at sunset
I should admit up front that Mindy and I aren’t big jazz fans. There are performers we like -- we’ve listened to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and we liked Whiplash -- but if we come across a jazz station on the radio, we’re likely to turn the station to rock or classical (but not country). We find the music to be a little more fun when we get to see the performers enjoying themselves and each other.

The jazz combo opened the service with a piece called “Psalm 23:1” by Pete Malinverni. Malinverni wrote pieces about the whole Psalm, and more of it was used later in the service after the sermon. Even more unusual and interesting was the call to worship, a work called “Angry.” Many times, especially in church, people don’t like to acknowledge their anger, but the Reverend Stephen  Carlson introduced the piece by saying, “Bear with us while we get something off our chest.” “Angry” is an original composition by David Aus, who was also the musical director and pianist of the evening. After the piece, Carlson said, “There, I feel much better now.”

Almost as surprising as the call to worship was the choice for the Scripture reading, Psalm 109. Psalm 109 is one of the “Imprecatory Psalms,” as they were called in seminary. It’s one of the Psalms that call down curses on other people. It’s the kind of Psalm that tends to be neglected in churches, but that people find themselves spontaneously praying all the time in real life. Pastor Carlson never used the word “imprecatory,” instead, he called it a “Bad Prayer.”

Psalm 109 isn’t as harsh as some others in the book, but it does include the psalmist's request that God would “Let my assailants be put to shame… May my accusers be clothed with dishonor.” Pastor Carlson pointed out that when we hear this we think, “That’s not nice; that’s not Christian.”

Jazz Mass at Hope Lutheran Church in Fresno
It’s hard to figure out what to do with those Psalms, and even more difficult to know how to think about the Psalms that talk about throwing babies against the rocks (as Psalm 137 does).

So Pastor Carlson asked, “What do we do with these prayers?” He began by saying that we need to admit that we all have these dark feelings. I appreciated his opening up to admit the dark feelings he had toward his former brother-in-law who was unfaithful and abusive toward his sister. It’s not far to go from those feelings to wanting to “ask God to be our hitman.”  

He pointed out that just because we pray for something doesn’t mean God will do it, but he said that praying these prayers does serve a purpose. First of all, they remind us of the power of sin. And, he said, we need to learn to give our pain over to God. We need to express those feelings,  and bringing our pain to God is bringing it to a safe place. God loves us, He knows our junk, and we aren’t going to hurt Him by bringing Him our pain.

Pastor Carlson contrasted this “Bad Prayer” with the “Good Prayer” of Psalm 23. He noted that it’s unfortunate that we’ve come to associate “The Shepherd’s Psalm” with death because we’ve heard it used so often at funerals. He said that this is a Psalm for life. We have a Good Shepherd who died for our sins, and He reminds us that His love and power are greater than our sin and pain. “Bad prayers lead to Good Prayers. Thoughts of vengeance lead to forgiveness.”

Which led to communion. “You don’t need to be a member of this congregation, you don’t need to be a part of this denomination, because Christ is our Host,” Pastor Carlson said in the invitation to Communion. Ushers directed people to go forward for the sacrament, and they had quite the traffic cop skills. There was a choice for grape juice or wine and wheat or gluten-free bread.

Vocalist Debi Ruud, who had sung “Go to Hell” earlier, closed the service with the song “Prayer Changes Things” which was popularized by Mahalia Jackson. It was lovely, but I missed having congregational singing during the service. We did participate through responsive reading and interactive prayers.

The postlude was an instrumental version of “I say a Little Prayer.” I’m not sure, but it may be one of the first times I’ve heard a Burt Bacharach piece in a worship service -- as it was the first time we’d heard a Nina Simone song in church (we heard a song of Mahalia Jackson’s in church just about a year ago).

Everyone was invited to go to another building for refreshments. (Early in the service, people were invited to sign two sign-ups they’d find near the food. One was for updates on the Jazz Masses and the other was for volunteering to bring food after the Jazz Masses. “Whatever you bring, we’ll eat it.”) So we went to the other building and there was fine snackage.

It was a nice opportunity to chat with people. I saw Eric, who I had shaken hands with during the greeting time in the service. I asked him if he regularly went to Hope, and he said it’d been his church for the last twenty years (calculating by the age of his children). For a time, while his kids were young and involved with various activities such as soccer, they weren’t making it to church as often. This hit home when the family was driving by Hope Lutheran and one of his daughters said, “Where do we go to church again?” Eric decided they needed to be more faithful to church attendance, and they have been.

I asked what he appreciated about the church, and he said one thing was the pastor. The children’s and youth programs were another big factor in their devotion to the church. He said they’re good programs and that the church kind of has a motto, “Program it and they will come.”

The Sunday night Jazz Masses happen pretty much every month, and Eric said some people who take the morning off on Jazz Sundays in order to attend in the evening.

We did have a good time in the service, and appreciated that no one sang “Go to Hell” addressed to us personally.

Service Length: 1 hour 9 minutes
Sermon Length: 15 minutes
Visitor Treatment: No particular notice of visitors, although the invitation to the Communion table was specifically extended to all, not just church members.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none (but they didn’t know we were there)
Our Rough Count: 116
Probable Ushers’ Count: 125
Snacks: coffee, decaf, hot water for tea or hot chocolate, a wide variety of cookies and other sweets
Musicians: Standup bass (man)
Fresno, California's Hope Lutheran Church after dark
Saxophone (man)
Trumpet (man)
Piano (man)
Drums (man)
Vocals (woman)
Songs: Psalm 23:1
Go to Hell
Psalm 23:1-4
“Prayer Changes Things”
“Say a Little Prayer”
Distance to Church: 2.5 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: 2
Church Website:

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

We Go to Church for Training

hymnal at Carter Memorial AME Chruch, Fresno
Carter Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, Fresno
Gladys didn’t come for the evangelism training, “I came for Bible study, but this is good too.” We were supposed to divide into pairs and discuss what might keep us from sharing the Good News about Jesus with other people. Gladys said nothing did. “I’ll be celebrating my 85th birthday this year and God has always been faithful to me. Yes, there have been hard times, but God has always been there.”

Many of us have a harder time talking about what God’s done in our lives. That’s why the sponsors of “Good News in the Valley” (also known as “Fresno City Fest” -- coming April 1st & 2nd at Save Mart Center) scheduled evangelism training at different churches throughout the city. We were happy they held a Wednesday night meeting, because we’re trying to got to church on Wednesdays evenings this month. (Have you noticed that worship services aren’t all we write about?)

Michael greeted us at the door. We later learned he's been at all the training sessions. He asked how I was, and I said, “Well.”

I asked how he was, and he said, “Blessed.” A cheerful and gregarious guy, Michael told me about the Festival he attended last year in Southern California, at Angels Stadium. He told me about the thrill of seeing thousands put their trust in Christ in that Festival, and how he was looking forward to seeing the same in Fresno. He told me 1,500 counselors had been trained, but they’d be needed for the thousands that would be coming.

Before the meeting started, I walked around inside Carter Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church. A wall to one side of the sanctuary was filled with pictures of the founders of the AME denomination along with pictures of pastors of Carter Memorial including their current pastor, the Reverend Sharon Avril. A group of people was finishing up a meeting at a table in the room, and we later learned they were taking a membership class. Since part of the membership class was evangelism training, they were taking advantage of the Festival session along with the rest of us.

Jeff, one of the leaders of the training, introduced himself to me before the meeting. A woman from Carter Memorial asked if he was my pastor, and I told her no.

Pastor Avril opened the meeting in prayer and welcomed all in attendance. Jeff came forward and mentioned that he and Pastor Avril were both members of the West Fresno Ministerial Alliance, an association of churches that has been working together for over 60 years.

Jeff talked about the upcoming event and said the purpose was to lift up Jesus; it was not about lifting up any particular person or church or evangelist. (The evangelist that he was talking about, I assume, that the Fest was not looking to lift up is Luis Palau. Palau has been called a successor to Billy Graham. Born in Argentina, Palau now has an evangelistic organization based in Oregon, but he has preached around the world, even in China in 2005.)

Jeff turned the podium over to Javier, who was to talk about the need for evangelism. He discussed the need to be open to God’s leading, telling us about driving to meeting in Fresno when he felt God urging him to stop at a Valero gas station along the way.  He stopped and saw a young man he knew. The young man said he was considering suicide. Javier counseled the man, who gave his life to Christ, and has now been active in a church for years. He urged people to pray in the time before City Fest, “We need to talk to God about people, before we talk to people about God,” he said.

Fresno City Fest is April 1 and 2 at Save Mart Center
Using a fill in the blanks handout, we were reminded “People are _______ without God” (“lost” was the missing word). We were encouraged to remember that just as Jesus Christ came into the world to save the lost, we are to be His witnesses.

Jeff and Javier traded off speaking, and they went on to talk about obstacles to sharing Christ and the importance of knowing the Gospel message so we would be able to share it. We were encouraged to write up a short summary of the Gospel message. (FWIT, I wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, and sin leads to death. But God sent his Son, Jesus, to die for our sins, so that we would know God’s forgiveness and eternal life.”) People were encouraged to share what they had written with the group, and all of the responses were given positive encouragement from the leaders. (Mindy and I didn’t read what we'd written aloud. She was still writing when they called for responses.)

We were encouraged to think of people from various parts of our lives: friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, etc. that don’t know Jesus and therefore need our prayers. We were encouraged to write those first names on two pieces of paper -- one list for our personal prayer life and on another card to be turned in so that Festival associates can also be praying for them. (Just so you know, Karen, Kay, Roscoe and Sandra -- someone is praying for you.)

There was discussion of how to begin conversations about spiritual issues. Some people suggested variations on “Where do you go to church?” which probably isn’t the best in a place where many people don’t go church and never have gone to church. Other suggestions for questions included, “Are you happy?” and “What’s important to you?” The importance of listening to people AND the Spirit of God was stressed.

Those who attended the training were encouraged to be counselors at City Fest. Counselors (or “Friends of City Fest”) were asked to go to a special tent at the Festival, where they would be registered and given an orange t-shirt to identify them as counselors. At the end of the evening worship meetings, people who want to follow Jesus won’t be called forward; instead, they’ll be asked to raise their hands so counselors can go to them.  

Toward the end of the training time, someone quoted Acts 1:8 (NIV), “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Javier said, “We are at the ends of the earth here in Fresno. You can look it up on the map.” It will be exciting to see what God does here at the ends of the earth in April.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

We go to Church for Very Traditional Reasons

First Presbyterian Church, Fresno
I happened to catch a little of Jimmy Kimmel’s late night monologue on Ash Wednesday. He was talking about what he thought the day meant. “My mom goes to church, and they put ashes on her forehead to show she’s more religious than I am.” This tension between religious practice done to please God or to put on a show for yourself didn’t exactly originate on Jimmy Kimmel Live! After all, Jesus brought the issue up a time or two.

In Matthew 6: 16 - 18, Jesus said, “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

I really appreciated that particular Scripture passage being read together with the Isaiah 58 passage about true fasting because Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a time when Christians traditionally prepare for Holy Week/Good Friday/Easter. But not all Christians participate.

Pretty much all Christians are down with Good Friday and Easter, but it’s Catholics and Orthodox who have, through the centuries, maintained Lenten traditions. Episcopalians (and a few other Protestant denominations) have recognized the season, but when Mindy was growing up in Presbyterian churches, Ash Wednesday wasn’t especially noted. For me, growing up in the Evangelical Free Church, the day was never mentioned (and still wasn’t in the Ev. Free Church we attend now).

So what is Ash Wednesday? It is the beginning of the season of lent, preparing for the remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ashes were in Scripture a symbol of grief and mourning. In Christian tradition, the ashes on this day symbolize sorrow for sin. Traditionally, churches often use the palms from Palm Sunday, to be burned for Ash Wednesday ashes. The ashes are also a symbol of the transitory nature of life, referring to Genesis 3:19, “For dust you are, and to dust you will return.”

Over the past few decades, many Presbyterian churches have begun recognizing Ash Wednesday with special worship services, so we were pleased to be able to attend an Ash Wednesday service. (We were even more pleased, because we had already decided that this month, we’d visit churches for Wednesday night services and events, because a lot of churches seem to have Wednesday evening gatherings here in Fresno.)

Upon entering the church, we were greeted by ushers; as first time visitors we were given a pine slice with a thread with Habakkuk 3: 17 & 18 inscribed on one side. (“It’s Scripture,” the usher told us.)

First Presbyterian Church of Fresno is an Evangelical Presbyterian Church and has been since 2009, but the church traces its foundation back to 1882 and has been in its current building since 1950. Formerly the congregation was a part of the larger PCUSA (Presbyterian Church of the United States of America) denomination. (Tangential story: Years ago, Mindy had a temp job as a corporate spy, sort of. She was sent out to investigate whether a restaurant that used to be an A&W, was still using any A&W trademarked materials. Among other things, we found the A&W logo on the inside of lamps and on napkin dispensers. We were reminded of that experience at Fresno First Presbyterian when we noticed a children’s book in the pew. It was put out by the PCUSA to help children learn about worship services, and it featured worshiping mice.)

The service opened with the bell choir. As the worship service continued, we sang both hymns and choruses. A prayer for illumination preceded the Scripture reading, and after that, Meagan Bergem, the church’s director of junior high ministries (it’s a full time staff position) delivered a short sermon. Another staff member  member stood by her and prayed for her before the message.

Meagan first acknowledged her students, “It’s awesome to see beautiful junior hIgh students in the front row,” and then the rest of the congregation, “It is a privilege to talk about Jesus with you.” Her message was called, “When the Infinite Meets the Finite,” and she used I John 4: 7-10 as her text, focusing on God’s love for us and how we should express love to others. She used the old saying, “Love people, use things; the opposite never works.” But, as she pointed out, loving people requires risk and vulnerability. She encouraged students to risk spending time with people who are different. She encouraged adults to go to lunch with someone who votes differently (we do live in odd times when that’s a thing).

The sermon served as an introduction to the Lenten season as, we were told, “a time we dwell on the brokenness of our sin but there is hope.” The season is all about “bringing the infinite love of Jesus into our finite lives” and reminding us that “to know joy, we must know suffering.”

Before the “imposition” of ashes, another staff member led in a time of prayer. “We’ll be silent for two to five minutes,” she said, “which is longer than some of us are used to. But I’ll watch the clock so you don’t have to.”

After the silent prayer, people were invited to come forward. “We’ll make a sign of the cross on your forehead. It may not look like a cross, -- no guarantees,” the pastor said. People went forward to receive the mark decently and in order, as Presbyterians do. (There a couple people on the worship team who already had an ash cross on their foreheads. I believe there was a service at Fresno State at noon that day, along with other services in the community.)

The service concluded with an offering accompanied by the bell choir. (The bell choir played “Sing Hallelujah” which didn’t involve singing. This struck me as odd.)

After the service, a couple in the row in front of us introduced themselves. They used to go to a large independent church, they said, but came to First Presbyterian a couple of years ago. The first time they visited they found the music “majestic,” and they haven’t considered going anywhere else since.

We will be going somewhere else -- we always do. But we were happy to celebrate Ash Wednesday with the good, sooty people of First Presbyterian Fresno.

Service Length: 1 hour 9 minutes
Sermon Length: 16 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Greeters at the entrance welcomed us. We found connection cards in the pew and dropped one in the offering plate. The couple in the row ahead of us greeted us after the service was over. Otherwise, no particular notice was taken of visitors.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 157
Probable Ushers’ Count: 175
Snacks: none
Musicians: organ (woman)
bell choir (3 men, 5 women)
piano (man)
vocals (man and woman)
violin (woman)
bass (man)
drums (man)
vocals (woman)
Songs: 3 Lenten Impressions (organ prelude)
"Breathe" bell choir
"Our Great Savior"
"Praise to the Lord, the Almighty"
"I Shall Not Want"
"Lord, I Need You"
"Sing Hallelujah" (offertory, bells)
"Glory Be"
Distance to Church: 6 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: 2
Church Website: