Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Visiting a Reformed Temple (with Bonus Bar Mitzvah)

Why were we at temple?
Even though the building looked new, the heavy, engraved, metal doors looked old and beautiful. The sanctuary could have been any little church except that the central focus was shaped like a large scroll with a veil hanging in the center. On one side of the altar hung a series seven of candles with silver flames. On the other side hung a tree with seven silver leaves. I didn’t learn the real meanings of these, but they brought to mind the menorah and Jesse tree.  The rabbi began the Shabbat service with a story about trees and leaves. With Rosh Hashanah approaching, the message was return and renewal. They had two of their youngest members blow the shofar (ram horn). 

Most of the service was a series of psalms from the siddur, or prayer book. I followed the Hebrew as best I could, but I was really glad to have the English translation just below. I’ve been struggling lately with defining what worship is, but I felt that these prayers got it. We weren’t here for a lesson (even if a message was included), and we weren’t asking anything of God. We were merely gathered, setting aside time and individuality for an hour to acknowledge the magnificence of God. 

There was guitar accompaniment with the singing, and while I thought it sounded good, I wondered if there were members of the congregation who preferred a more old-style cantering. I’ve found at Catholic churches the guitars often miss the meaning of the lyrics and turn something deep (like the Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) into a 1970s campfire song. While I didn’t get that feeling myself at temple, I just wondered if they face the same issue.  

There was an overwhelming sense of community there. Perhaps it is a benefit of the congregation size (about 100) or because of the minority status, but it was clear that everyone knew everybody and looked out for one another. They were family. And while they did have visitors introduce themselves in service (which I hate), after service I felt welcomed but not overwhelmed. I feel like there are rough lines between cold, friendly, and pushy, and they toed friendly well.  

The sense of community was particularly obvious that evening because a young man was celebrating his bar mitzvah. He led several of the Hebrew prayers, and you could feel people jumping in a bit quicker to help him out. He was the stereotypical 13-year-old boy, that is, Awkward with a capital A. I thought he was adorable. He received several gifts from the congregation during the service, and there was the general sense that everyone knew him and was proud of him. While I felt like we were crashing his big day, I was really glad I got to see it. 

A lady commented how all the preparation seems like a lot of work for just one day, but how transforming that preparation is. Just the acts of preparing, studying, and training changes you, matures you. I have deep respect for rites of passage, a clear line to mark the start of adulthood. While I and several of my friends were confirmed at age 12-15, confirmation isn’t meant to be a rite to adulthood like a bar mitzvah and doesn’t serve the same purpose. The closest I can liken it to is how my home church treats high school graduation.  You’re honored for you accomplishment and given gifts from the church, but even more so, the community’s outpour of pride and love is overwhelming. It makes you want to be worthy of such affection. 

Anyway, the bar mitzvah during the Shabbat service was a delightful bonus. Near the end of the service, the veil was pulled back, revealing the large scrolls of the Torah. While the Torah is the center of focus and adoration, it wasn’t read or directly referenced during service. I didn’t notice at the time, but once it was pointed out to me, it did seem like an odd omission. But again, it’s because the worship is in the psalms and prayer. Study and lessons and interpretations are done outside of the sacred time. 

Score: 72

Friday, August 23, 2013

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 73)

1. I finally finished Around the World in 80 Days. I thought it was going to take me 80 days to get through it, but once I got them on an elephant in India, I was hooked. There is something about Victorian literature that really gets to me. Compared with more contemporary novels, the voices are stand-offish. There is never too much description about a character’s inner thoughts or feelings. And yet I get really attached the characters by the end. The sense of anachronism continues.

2. So now I really want to start another Jules Verne book, which means Orthodoxy is being put on hold again, as well as The Girls of Atomic City and The Brothers Karamasov. I was going to get those read before school started. Oops. And then I randomly started The Time Machine yesterday, so everything gets doubly bumped. 

3. How I envision my life until Christmas break.

4. The students are moving into the dorms this week, which has made campus way too crowded for my taste. I like the summer population better.

5. I’ve been playing around on InDesign and Photoshop all week. I had forgotten how much I loved doing layout. Making clean, orderly, informative things. It’s work, but soothing at the same time.

6. Speaking of informative, I love this list of maps. I love maps in general, but these are particularly good.

7. I saw this video yesterday and instantly loved it. I like when a song can be parodied well. Plus, what an awesome song choice.

Friday, August 16, 2013

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 72)

1. The Feast of the Assumption was yesterday. I considered writing a whole post on the dogma of Mary, but instead, I just have a bad pun:

2. I was supposed to start my GA position this week, but bureaucracy said no. So I’m enjoying a few more days of summer until I’m approved to start.

3. But I’d actually like to start soon. I’m getting bored at home, which is saying a lot for this uber-introvert. I’m suffering from a bad case of writer’s block, and it’s making me antsy.

4. I ordered all my books for the semester. Fourteen grad school books were $100 less than the four business school books I bought last semester. And I’ll probably enjoy these more.

5. Speaking of books, today’s chore is reorganizing my two little bookshelves (and bemoaning the fact that I don’t have the shelves or space for the other 4/5 of my books).

6. I’m looking forward to seeing The Butler this week. It looks like a great movie with lots and lots of great actors, but really, I’m mostly going to see Alan Rickman play Ronald Reagan.

7. Also in movie world, Into Darkness comes out on dvd in a few weeks. Until then, I have Picard's review.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Visiting a Mega-church

Or “In which I go to a mega-church and only say ‘dammit’ once”

As we turned into the church parking lot, an abundance of orange cones led us up the lane, forcing us to the front which had a sign for guest parking. A tent was sent up in front of the door that said “Welcome Guests” and a man stood nearby with bright orange pamphlets. My friend made the smart decision to keep driving and loop to the back. We just want inside, not your name tags and pamphlets. Who determines a guest? Do I have to keep parking in the front until I’m a full member, or is that only for the first three visits?  There’s being welcoming, and there’s being pushy. This felt pushy. I was being identified, labeled, and targeted before reaching the door. We didn’t want to be labeled as guests; we just wanted to sit in the back and observe. You aren’t going to attract any introverts with such a method; you’re just going to make us keep driving.

We get inside, and the area looks like a conference center, with a resource room, bookstore, coffee shop, and information desk. We go into the room labeled auditorium. We think we’re 10 minutes early, but the room is already packed, and a man is speaking. Maybe this is a Sunday School class before the worship service? We climb up to the top of the theater seating. I later figured out that this was the main service; just this week they had changed their service times, so we had arrived 20 minutes late and missed out on the praise band music (which we were looking forward to making fun of, but happy to miss).

Now it took us a bit to figure out that the service time had changed. We looked in the bulletin, and after ticket info for a man from America’s Got Talent and the time for the Men’s Breakfast was a section called Joining God. We deduced this to be the Sunday worship service, even though the section didn’t use the word like “Sunday” or “worship.”
Despite being late, we still caught 40 minutes of the sermon. It seemed he could have gotten to the point a lot quicker instead of re-iterating it in six different ways. A message that runs over 20 minutes is really just a ramble in my book. I like long academic lectures, but this wasn’t academic, and this was on God’s time, not school time. The preacher’s message was about slowing down and not feeling so rushed, which I thought was a good message. He tied it into the story of Mary and Martha, which was also good. But then he mentioned how Jesus speaks to Martha by saying her name twice, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.” (Luke 10:41)

He then said, “There are only two other places in scripture where Jesus speaks like this,” meaning repeating the name twice.

Oh, no, I thought. Please don’t try to tie in Martha’s story with Christ’s last words on the Cross. Yes, that might be an interesting fact, something to be unwrapped in another sermon. But that isn’t the point of the message you’re giving. Don’t toss “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” out there without any context or point. Don’t diminish those words with a casual tie-in. Don’t give those two phrases equal weight. Don’t go there.

“Don’t say ‘on the cross’” I muttered repeatedly under my breath.

“…and on the cross…” 

“Dammit.” Only after the word was out did I realize that part was definitely out loud and audible although I really did intend to keep it in my head. I wondered if I should feel bad that I said dammit in church, but then I realized I was in an auditorium and not a sanctuary and there was a good chance no one but my friend heard me, so I was probably ok.

After the message, there was a quick prayer that I felt like only existed as a transition for the band to set up on stage and the lights to dim. They played a couple of songs that weren’t bad, musically or theologically, but were way too loud. There was a quick benediction, and the service ended. 

My biggest problem with the church was the building itself. It didn’t even try to pass off the space as holy, calling the gathering space an auditorium rather than a nave or sanctuary. It looked and felt like a bland performing arts center. If not for the wooden cross on either end of the stage, there would be no indication this was a religious place. The center of the stage, the focus, was a set made to look like a gas station, with old pumps and a 7-Up machine. The band’s instruments were set up in front of this. Who in the world thinks giving more prominence to a soda machine than a cross is a good look for a church? It certainly sent a message to me that the band and the “hip” theme were more important than the cross.  

I’m pretty critical of the whole mega-church style, so I promised myself going in that I would find three things I genuinely liked:

  1. The theme for the six-week series and the message delivered was about being spiritually stalled. I thought it was a really good theme, and for the most part, thought the preacher was good. 
  2. I noticed this in the bulletin and really liked it: “Colored candles may be lit before, after, or during the time of worship. Blue represents a need for which we see the Holy Spirit’s strength. Amber expresses gratitude for an evident work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Red is for someone we desire to come to faith in Christ.” The candles were placed near the crosses in the auditorium. 
  3. They used really nice card stock. I know this sounds sarcastic, but I kept commenting on how nice the card stock was for the bulletin insert and the cards in the back of the seats. Thick, some glossy, raised letters. I geeked a little. 
  4. Because I feel like card stock isn’t a good one, I’ll add that I was pleasantly surprised that there was no altar call. I had the misconception that all mega-non-denoms were all about altar calls, all the time. And that’s why I wanted to do this church hop, to shake some misconceptions and be pleasantly surprised.
Score: 46

[And here’s a special message to the couple getting way too touchy-feely during the last song: No matter the noise level or the lighting, this isn’t a rock concert. It’s Sunday morning, and you’re with your kids. Keep your hands off your spouse’s butt and try not to make-out while the praise band version of “All Creatures of Our God and King” is playing.]

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Church Hopping

I’ve decided to visit some different types of church services this fall, and some friends are along for the ride. So far, there are only three on our list. That might be it, or I might find more that spark my interest. Either way, I thought it would be interesting to write about my experiences with different forms of services.

First off, I’m not going to name the churches we visit, because it’s not about the church but rather my very biased opinions on attending different styles of services. I don’t want to name names but rather talk about experience.

Second, I made a grading sheet to help me look at roughly the same things at each service. I’m not going to go into all the criteria I put into my grading sheet, because it’s totally biased. The main criteria include friendliness without being pushy, structure, and the theological merits of the sermons/song lyrics. Politics, anti-science, emotional manipulation, or the phrase “the Bible clearly says” can get negative points. For a comparison, I ranked the last two Catholic churches I attended and both scored in the mid-seventies. Easter would probably put both in the low-eighties. 

I really should have had a category for web sites. I don’t ask for much from church web sites. I appreciate when they are good, but it’s ok if they look like they haven’t been updated since 1997. All I want is directions and service times, but apparently, some church web sites can’t even swing that. I don’t want videos about end times or sign-up sheets for small groups on the front page if you can’t even tell me what time to arrive on Sunday morning. I’m a Millennial, which means I want to get my information without having to call your office and actually ask someone. I really don’t think that’s too much to expect. 

But I really don’t know what to expect; that’s the point. I want to get over some misconceptions and be able to speak from a little experience when talking about other styles of worship.

Friday, August 9, 2013

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 71)

1. I thought the stress of grad school wasn’t supposed to start until school actually started, but I’ve been really stressed out with all the paperwork, more paperwork, repeating paperwork you mailed in a month ago but that got lost somewhere so now you have to rush to do it all again, and being told that I am in fact I’m suddenly not considered an in-state resident although I was two days ago when I paid for the semester, but now they’d like an extra $8440 please. And electronic versions of everything do not help; while I enjoy doing things in my pajamas, I really like knowing who or what office is asking for things so I know who to go complain to.

2. Adding to that stress, I got locked out of the laundry room yesterday with clothes in the washer. When I tried to call my landlady, I realized my phone had randomly thrown a tantrum and deleted all my contacts. Yeah, I was in a great mood yesterday.

3. Speaking of stress when school starts, I’m not even sure when school does start. I probably need to look that up soon… and order books… and get excited for class instead of complaining about all the bureaucracy problems.

4. I wanted to get one more blog post done this week, but yesterday was a wash for me. And it’s going to take me all weekend and probably a good chunk of next week to recover from the amount of seeing people I have to do to get things straightened out. (Recover = wine, Netflix, nap, repeat as needed.)

5. The deadline for all of this to be sorted out is Thursday. Oh, and look, Thursday is a Holy Day of Obligation. That’s really good, because I could use extra church this coming week. (And while I could go to morning Mass every day, I know I’m not going to.)

6. I’m working slowly through Orthodoxy, but I’m really enjoying it. I’m writing down lots of quotes, which is always a sign that I’m hooked. I really need to up my game on my reading before school reading takes over.

7. While I’m complaining a lot about school, I’m also really excited. I love being a student. It’s that whole “career/life after school” that I’m not so good at or keen on.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Transfiguration

If I had to pick one major gap in my childhood Christian education, it would be the Transfiguration. I either didn’t hear about it at all or so little importance was placed on it, that I didn’t know what it was until I was 15. And then it struck me as, “This sounds like kind of a big deal. Why is no one talking about this?” I learned the story, but then never investigated any meaning behind it. It struck me as powerful and important and beautiful, yet I had no idea why. 

Later, I was still drawn to it, but explainations I found always seemed lacking. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain, where they watch him in a bright light of divinity. Moses and Elijah appear on either side of Jesus. Similar to his baptism, a voice from heaven announces, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” So it's a throwback to his baptism, a display of his place uniting the Law and the Prophets, and a showcase of his divinity. But it seems like so much more than just an indicator of other things. There is weight and significance on its own, surely. Yet, it seems to be treated as a footnote by many. I just know that if I were Peter or James or John, this is an experience that would alter my life (and I believe it did alter theirs). I feel like I'm missing the real point of it, and that maybe I'm not ready to understand it.

While in the midst of things, Peter suggests building tabernacles there to honor Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. And like always, a disciple gets it wrong. He wants to stay on the mountain and relish in this beautiful holy moment, but the moment is swift, and it points towards things to come (Christ’s Passion). They have to leave the mountain. I think I look at the Transfiguration the same way many of the disciples looked at Jesus. The meaning and theology isn’t all worked out, but the recognition of something super important is there. And I’m definitely one who wants to just stay on the mountain enjoying the radiance instead of coming back down and doing the dirty work.

Monday, August 5, 2013

St. Magnus and St. Ronald

The story of St. Magnus comes from two sagas. Magnus Erlendsson was born in 1075 to the Earl of Orkney, then under Norwegian rule. His father was a twin, which created complications with who was the rightful earl. Magnus and his first cousin, Haakon Paulsson, ruled jointly for some time, but eventually, their followers demanded that only one man be earl. In 1115, they agreed to meet unarmed on an island and discuss the matter.

Magnus arrived under the agreed upon conditions, but Haakon arrived with several men and seized Magnus. Haakon refused to kill his own cousin, who was known as a pious and honorable man, so he asked his standard bearer to do so, but he refused as well. Eventually, the cook was ordered to kill Magnus. Magnus prayed for his executioner, and his only request was that he not be beheaded, so the cook struck him through the skull with the axe.

St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall
Rumors grew of healings at his burial site on Birsay, gaining followers and pilgrims. Magnus’ nephew, St. Ronald, decided to build a cathedral in Magnus’ honor. In 1137, Magnus’ remains were moved to the cathedral in Kirkwall. In 1917, bones were found in one of the columns, including a damaged skull, lending proof that they were Magnus’ remains. Because the Reformation was not as dramatic or violent in Orkney as in other parts of the UK, St. Magnus is one of very few saints who still rests in his cathedral in the country.

Magnus’ nephew, Ronald, went on to become a saint himself. He became Earl of Orkney and Shetland in 1129. In 1151, he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He died in 1158 in Scotland. His feast day is August 20.

It was fascinating putting together parts of St. Magnus’ and St. Ronald’s story as I traveled around Orkney. I went to Birsay, where Magnus grew up and was buried, and I saw the column in the cathedral where he rests now. I was surrounded by their history, and their stories continue to be remembered and play a role in the community’s identity. And suddenly, 900 years doesn’t feel that long ago. There is a connection that stretches across the barriers of time and death. Here we all are, sharing in the story.