Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Church Visits - part 2

It isn't fair of me to only speak about one of the churches we visited, so here's my piece on Visitation Catholic church - our second church visit for Worship class. Comparing it to C.O.R. isn't really fair - they have completely different feels and are targeting completely different groups of people. Where COR was trying to reach the unchurched or those who are "nominally" Christian, Visitation is very proud of its connection to the Catholic faith. As such, there were many more Christian, specifically Catholic, symbols all around the church. The narthex is large room, including a fireplace, comfy chairs and a large painting of the Bible story for which the church is named - Mary, mother of Jesus, visiting her pregnant friend Elizabeth. I also noticed a large basket for collecting food, an obvious act of charity that I don't remember noticing at COR. The other big thing that struck me right away was the color of the walls - a very warm cream color, almost gold with the light coming in through yellow glass windows. It felt very inviting and comfortable to me.

When we walked into the sanctuary I was awed and somehow physically affected. It's hard to explain, but it was beautiful and welcoming. The whole congregation faces the altar, which is very much central to the set up. In the ceiling above the altar table is a large opening, kind of like a skylight but the windows go around the sides of the dome rather than being at the very top. Instead, the very top was a beautiful painting of a dove in the blue sky, respresenting the Holy Spirit coming down on the activity on that altar. It was breathtaking to see, and yet most of the congregation never sees it since it's above the altar and not really visible ftom the pews. The other big thing about Visitation is the baptismal font, a larger sixe than I've generally seen. It's big enough for an adult to kneel in (although not deep enough for complete immersion) and is placed in the main sanctuary but kind of off to one corner. It was a compromise on the location, as some people wanted it immediately in the center of the entrance and others wanted it more out of the way. Where it sits is very visible, but not impeding traffic flow through the main doors. It's also in straight sight line to the altar, as is the chapel where the Eucharist is kept for those that are sick or homebound. Everything comes back to the altar.

I had the opportunity to go back to Visitation for mass on Saturday - part of the class requirments to experience different types of worship services but also getting me in touch with my Roman Catholic roots. I have to write a paper on it for class, so I don't want to say too much here, but there were several things that struck me about the mass. (1) There were two baptisms at that particular mass, so I was excited about getting to see the font in use, but it turned out that I really couldn't see much of anything. The families and people from the congregation all crowd around the font to see, blocking sight and the feel of participation from the rest of us who stayed in the pews. (2) As is custom in my experience of Catholic mass, the congregation doesn't get involved. There were hymns listed in the order of worship, but nobody sang along with the cantor or even turned to the page in their hymnals! While the priest didn't seem to really be setting himself apart from the congregation, there was a definite feel of the priest being the actor and everyone else there to just watch. (3) Right after communion, people leave. This is something I also remember from growing up - the deed is done, they got what they came for and they're on their way. It feels very fracturing to have such a large part of the community walk out before the final blessing, and I don't really understand where this comes from, but I think it speaks to the mindset of the congregants more than the worship service itself. Any Catholics out there want to enlighten me?? It amazes me when I look back and realize how much I don't know about the tradition I was raised in. I'm definitely more Methodist than Catholic now, but will never be separate from those roots. I think that's why it's hard for me to separate my feelings about Visitation from my past - in a sense I felt like I was going home.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Church Visits

In the midst of my continuing spiritual dilemma, I'm being required for my Intro to Worship class to visit sveral churches that do worship in ways which are different from my every Sunday experience. To kick us off, we spent our class period last week visiting two churches in order to analyze their worship spaces (after being assigned reading that dealt with what goes into sacred space and what things should be considered when designing worship space).

Our first visit was the Church of the Resurrection (in Overland Park, KS), one of the largest United Methodist churches in the country, and I believe, in the world. I had no idea just how big it was going to be, but it has its own campus, which I think is actually bigger land area than the Saint Paul School of Theology campus (hmmmm, interesting). We met in the narthex, or gathering area, where there is a huge open staircase, several clusters of chairs, a coffee shop and a bookstore (also bigger than that of our seminary, but that isn't saying much). From there were took a look at their newest chapel, a small, intimate worship space, fairly plain except for the specially commissioned stained glass cross window at the front (gray walls, one wall of glass, very contemporary styling, probably holds around 50 people). Then we went to the ushers' gathering room - where the collection plates, attendance pads, radios, etc are stored and the ushers coordinate with a head usher and a diagram of the sanctuary to make sure each person knows which section they are serving. It's really quite the undertaking to deal with so many people in one worship space. Next we went into the sanctuary itself, which I don't really know how to explain other than just massive. It felt kind of sterile to me - cement floors other than carpeted aisles, stadium seating, plain walls, no windows. Everything was done in fairly neutral colors, including the altar which was massive and made of some kind of natural stone. The room itself, as well as the altar table and baptismal font, had eight sides, to bring out the theme of the 8th day or new creation. The most prominent things to me about the space were (1) the audio-visual equipment and (2) the very large screens on either side of the altar area. Clearly electronics are important to this congregation as there were at least 4 cameras, maybe 6 or 8, situated around the sanctuary and there is an entire ministry team devoted to working them. The sound board was huge - nicer than some of the professional concert and theater venues I've worked at. Our guide (who was, incidentally, Lucinda Holmes who I used to know of from the Oklahoma Conference) pointed out several times how much equipment they had and how many people and how much coordination it took to do all the things that they do. There was another woman also leading the tour who talked about "the pastor" (Adam Hamilton) a lot - basically giving me the impression that he very much runs the show, a charismatic leader who makes a big impression on everyone. The prayers that he likes and ideas he have somehow become the favorites of everyone around him. It was kind of creepy, almost like a cult...

We went to two other spaces while we were there - the Wesley Covenant chapel (named for one of the pastor's favorite prayers), a more "natural" decor with windows, plants, rock altar surrounding the ever present media screen, and lots of wood beams, and the youth center. I don't really know what to make of the youth center - it was an incredible place, but not what I would categorize as a worship space. There was an internet cafe with several tables full of new Dell computers, a concert stage with more sound and light equipment than my high school had, an indoor skate park, a snack bar and a rock climbing wall! We didn't even see the whole thing but it was enough to get the idea. I have to admit that I had heard things about COR before this visit and they were not slanted in a positive light, but I honestly did try to go in with an objective mind to learn about how they set up their worship space. I just don't understand the mindset that has to show off the "stuff" they have and somehow relate it to worship. There was a cross and pulpit and those "typical things" on the altar, but they were so dwarfed by the other things that I had to remind myself to look for them. There were some copies of famous paintings (the Last Supper, etc.) that had been blown up onto sheeets of vinyl, like large posters, which were hung by either projection screen and there were four tapestries depicting acts of Jesus from the gospel of Luke, but not a whole lot else to "decorate" the sanctuary (at least not that I recall). I also admit that I'm not used to seeing projection screens, so they may have caught my attention more than they would others. It just felt very superficial and materialistic to me - not at all what I would want in a worship space. I know there are people who are drawn to this kind of atmosphere, but I don't understand why. I felt like I was going to a show or movie more than church, and maybe that's the idea. The mission of this congregation is to reach the unchurched and those that have lost their connection to church, and the area is very affluent, white suburbia, so I guess the niche was met and filled. The church is still growing, which says something. They are actually in the process of making a new, bigger sanctuary and will convert this one to a gym! I just question the validity of measuring success by money, numbers of people and how much stuff we have. Yes, this church is bringing people in, but so what? What kind of Christians are they? What kind of gospel are they learning and teaching? What does it say that they have this huge space, filled with all of this stuff, and they come every Sunday to their small groups and worship in their SUVs? I didn't hear a lot about mission and outreach, although I'm sure they do that too and it wouldn't have been entirely appropriate to the point of our visit, but I wonder... As much as I know I would be uncomfortable, I think I need to experience a worship service there and see how people interact to truly try to understand. Any insights you might have for me if/when I go? Am I being too hard or judgemental here?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Faith Crisis?

Well, the classwork has really been piling up and I've found myself reconsidering whether I can honestly call myself a Christian. To some degree, this is an ongoing debate in my head but it's also rearing it's ugly head a lot with this semester's courses. The first two reading assignments for my Intro to Worship class dealt with the church calendar, which is all based around the death and resurrection of Jesus. The general liturgy, particularly in the Roman Catholic background, is based around the death and resurrection of Jesus. Then in my class "Approaches to Paul's Theology" we've been talking about how, for Paul, the life and teachings of Jesus weren't relevant (he never quotes Jesus and tells any stories about things Jesus did) - just the fact that he lived and died and was resurrected. My United Methodist doctrine class hasn't harped on the resurrection bit quite so much, but we have been talking about John Wesley's theology and read Wesley prayers each class perios, so it's not exactly missing from the conversation either. It seems that there's a theme that Christianity - in some way, at some point, on some level, means that you believe in the resurrection. Now, exactly what is meant by that varies - I know some people take the resurrection as more of a myth which gives meaning and others believe in the bodily resurrection (zombie Jesus?) and others are somewhere else entirely. Personally, as the child of two engineers and a former science geek, I've never seen a body rise fromthe dead and have a really hard time buying it. I've never understood the whole Easter story - I've always just taken the story of the crucifixion as a story of how cruel and unjust humanity and empires can be, and yet God is present all the time. I've never felt the resurrection was needed.
I have one other class this semester - conversations with Buddhism and Christianity - and it's really speaking to me in deeper ways than I anticipated. I've always had a fascination for Buddhism, and my partner has managed to synthesize being Buddhist and United Methodist, although don't ask me to explain it. I did my senior paper in college comparing the lives and teachings of Jesus and Buddha (remarkably similar, but not twins), but this class is getting much more involved with the philosophy and world view of Buddhism and Eastern thought. Last week's class we were talking about karma and dying and someone asked more questions trying "to understand death from a Buddhist perspective" and it was then that someone explained it so simply. Death is almost a friend in Buddhism, an inevitable step we all must take on the journey with hope for a better life the next time, closer to attaining nirvana. In Christianity, death is the enemy, something which Jesus conquers in the crucifixion and resurrection. Death is often portrayed as the consequence of sin - our "fallen" state as human beings, but what if there wasn't a fall (as I don't believe the Bible is a history text book)? Why are humans the flawed beings that they are? Is it possible that there is no need for Jesus to die "for us"? Is it possible that the story of the resurrection was just a story someone made up (for any of a number of reasons)? What then, would become of Christianity? Would it even make a difference? I'm asking for your input - I'm an extrovert and need to bounce things off of others to better understand myself, so will you help me process this "crisis" of mine? I don't feel like I can walk into a seminary classroom and declare myself not a Christian - doesn't seem right, does it? But if I really feel this is the case, it also leads to questions of vocation. What business does someone like me have being a leader in the church, even if it isn't a position in the pulpit? How do you understand the resurrection? What's your Christology?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

First of all, Happy Valentine's Day! Whether you have someone special in your life or spend this day "single" I hope w can all at least experience some love of self on this day - take yourself out to dinner or a movie. I personally will be in classes and then getting coffee with some friends from school while my partner is off training for the military (not the first Valentine's Day that worked out this way for us - kind of getting tired of it though).

Last night I was fortunate enough to get invited to a free movie screening. I brought my friend Crystal with me (hipchick to you bloggers out there) and called in our reservations s the invitation had requested. I had to give our name, race and age in order to register, but when we got there and stood in line, we were rejected because they had too many people in our age bracket - the first time my 30 was used against me. Or maybe it worked out better this way. :) Instead of seeing "Failure to Launch" - a new romantic comedy with Matthew McCon-however-you-spell-it and Sarah Jessica Parker - we got to see whatever we wanted that night for free. So we chose to go see Brokeback Mountain. The theater was practically empty, which was kind of nice, and the movie was quite enjoyable. A few things about it I'm still processing. (1) I don't know a lot about sex between guys, but some of the sex scenes were pretty rough, bordering on rape in my opinion. I don't know if this is "typical" (if we can say any such thing) or if this was due to the particularities of this relationship, but I'm not sure it makes for a good impression of gay relationships. (2) This movie has received all kinds of accolades lately, including nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars. I thought the movie was good, but not THAT good. I know that the fact that it puts homosexuality in the main stream is a big deal, but is that the point of the Oscars? (3) The actors were good, and I particularly found myself feeling for the character played by Michelle Williams, the wife of one of the cowboys who suspects what her husband is up to. You could see her heart breaking and the struggle she went through trying to decide how/when/if to confront him about it. I don't know which people from this movie were nominated or have won, but in this arena, the movie just may deserve it.

A couple of other little things to say:
Olympics - Sad to see Michelle Kwan leave after the big effort to get there, but VERY glad that Emily Hughes will get her chance (which I think she earned with her performance in the Nationals, unlike Kwan). I wish Michelle the best with whatever she decides to do now.

Cheney - Shoots a friend, accidentally, but doesn't tell the press until a day later. What did he think they weren't going to find out? I've never liked this administration and their policies regarding the media (manipulation, exploitation, etc) but COME ON! If it was an accident, why not just show that you're human and move on. Unless Cheney really isn't human.... Hmm. OK, gotta go to class.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Further Reflection on Louisiana

When I went to Louisiana, now almost a month ago, I had no idea really what to expect when I got there. With all of the news footage over the months since Katrina and Rita hit, we all had horrible pictures in our heads, but I knew it had been several months and we weren't going to New Orleans. We actually went to a little town called New Iberia and worked out of the First United Methodist Church there. They had a building which they turned into dorm-style housing for VIM (Volunteers in Mission) work teams, which is how we ended up there. As you can tell from my previous post, there were a lot of issues that came up in our group over the 5 days we drove and worked together, but we never really got the chance to process them. I'm not going to take up more time on that at this point - I've verbally processed with several people, our group will never all be together again to hash it all out, and it's a moot point now anyway. What I haven't really processed is the people we helped and the damage we saw.

The trip was really only 3 days of work - Monday and Friday were nothing but driving, mostly through Arkansas. Tuesday and Wednesday we worked at Mt Zion United Methodist Church, a small country church in a low lying field. Different people will say it different ways, but essentially the storm damage to the church was very minimal. Most of the work we did had nothing to do with hurricanes and everything to do with just plain needing help. We did cleaning (pews, windows, floors, everything), some general maintenance (repairing a hole in the gutter, replacing lightbulbs, moving furniture, replacing damaged ceiling tiles, painting) and whatever else they needed. The three main projects we were told about before we got there were (1) a ramp for handicapped accessible entrance to the building (which was almost done when we got there - we just added a railing) (2) the ceiling and (3) the propane tank. It seems the field flooded with all the rain from the hurricane(s) and the water lifted the tank off the ground, shearing it off of it's connection to the line for the building. It ended up empty, upside down several yards away from the connection. We ended up just moving it back to where it belongs and recommending the gas company handle refilling it and repairing the broken connection. I don't know if the ceiling tiles were damaged from those rains too, or if they had just been there a long time and were situated in more vulnerable places of the roof. I don't think it matters.

At one point there was some dismay around the work we did and didn't do while we were there, and in reality, we didn't do the kind of work I expected we'd be doing, but it wasn't any less needed or appreciated. The lay leader from the church was there every day cooking food for us and thanking us any way she could. We gave that woman and a small church (one part of a 3 point charge) a sense of hope that they didn't have before. I heard some people in our group talk about what a shame it was that the congregation didn't take care of their own building, but I don't think that was fair. When you lose hope, why do you need pride? This church was in a SMALL town, very rural, and from the looks of the homes we passed, very poor. It was mostly made up of older African Americans (we were told the young people all moved away as soon as they could to find something more exciting). Again, I don't know if/how much race played into what we did down there, but I could feel the hopelessness in the air like a cold fog at 2 in the afternoon. I hope that a little more of the sunshine can now find its way in.

The third day of work we spent at an elderly gentleman's home. He's a member of the church we worked on and currently lives in a FEMA trailer parked in front of his house. On the outisde walls you can still see the flood line where water had been a couple of inches over the floor of the entire house. We ripped out moldy dry wall and insulation from three rooms in his house and started putting up new stuff before the day was done. Many of his salvageable belongings were stacked in his living room (which had been given new walls and subfloor by a previous work group) and his daughter drove in to take him to the hospital for a check up appointment while we were there. He was very sweet and surprised at how much we managed to get done in the one day we were there. I was sad we didn't get to finish a room at least, but I know more people will follow who will make his home livable again. This was much more the kind of project I had expected to be working on, and while it was very meaningful, it didn't touch me as much as the work we did at the church. Maybe that's because I saw the finished project and got that sense of accomplishment so many of us crave (got to tell that drum major of mine to cool it!) or maybe it's because we were there longer. I don't know. I have lots of pictures, but am not sure how I feel about putting them up on the blog. It seems a little too "hey look at me and tell me what a good thing I did" plus I don't have permission from the people in Louisiana for whom we did it all. If you're a Saint Paul student, you'll get to see plenty of them soon enough anyway. The seminary doesn't seem to have a problem letting everyone know what a great deed was done. Until the next rant....

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

New Semester... "Here we go again"

Well, I've been to all of my classes once now and it's going to be a busy semester - not that I didn't already know that. On top of classes, I'm continuing my attempt to be active in Sacred Worth (our seminary's gay-straight alliance type group) and the Social Justice Committee, plus working three campus jobs (library and student assistant for two professors). I love all of the things that I do on campus, although sometimes it feels like I need to scale back and really pick the most important things to focus on. I have no idea how I would choose. Anyway, I'm borrowing the title of Warren Carter's sermon from chapel yesterday (which was really enjoyable) in regards to things going on around campus already this semester. I put up the signs around campus for Sacred Worth meetings, and last semester we noticed that some of our signs were being taken down before the meetings had happened. Alan Herndon, our Dean of Students, sent out an email to the entire campus reminding them of the policy regarding signs - whoever puts them up takes them down, basically. Last night was our first meeting of Sacred Worth for the semester and yesterday afternoon I noticed that the signs from the library elevator and the break room (two fairly prominent places) were taken down. I'm at a loss. I knew that there were people who were uncomfortable or upset about us meeting, but where is the basic level of respect?! If I go to Alan again, what can he or anyone else really do about it? Nothing. We don't know who is taking the signs down, but it seems to happen in the same locations. Our group will go on meeting whether the signs stay up or not, but who know if there were/are missed opportunities...

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Judicial Council coming to Kansas City!!

It's Saturday and as a break from my homework (already) I thought I'd share this piece regarding the Judicial Council decision #1032. which I spoke about in my first post. The following is an excerpt from a news article done by Neill Caldwell for the United Methodist News Service (UMNS) and reprinted in the Reconciling Ministries email newsletter:

Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer, who leads the Richmond (VA) Area, and theVirginia Annual (regional) Conference Board of Ordained Ministry [BOOM] have separately filed motions for reconsideration of Decisions 1031 and1032. Both rulings relate to the Rev. Ed Johnson, senior pastor at SouthHill (Va.) United Methodist Church, who was placed on involuntary leavelast summer by the clergy executive session of the Virginia Conferencefor refusing to admit a practicing gay man into membership at thechurch.
At its Oct. 26-29 meeting in Houston, the Judicial Council ruled infavor of Johnson, reinstating him with all salary and benefits. As a result, Kammerer reappointed Johnson to South Hill Church. Council President James Holsinger has placed the motions for reconsideration on the non-docket agenda for the court's spring session, set for April 26-28 in Kansas City, Mo. That means that at least five members must agree to reconsider the decisions. (emphasis mine)

I don't really know what we can do, but if there is any way I can be present, protest, hear the conversation, anything, I want to be there! Saint Paul has yet to have another conversation regarding any official response to the ruling (which is now more than 3 months old), but the Social Justice Committee is working on that, with some help from the Dean. At this point, I'm not sure I can/should expect the seminary to do anything. It seems there have been enough other responses from throughout the church that things are in progress anyway. Now we just have to wait...

Friday, February 03, 2006


Well, it's the beginning of a new semester at Saint Paul School of Theology. Spring of 2006!! I hope I haven't gotten in over my head. A new semester means lots of changes - new schedule of classes, new books to read, new people seen on a regular basis, etc. I've also made a few changes to the blog. While still trying to keep posts somewhat brief (depends on my mood and the particular rant), I have made it so that anyone can post a comment. I'm hoping that will lead to more comments, in turn leading to some discussion. You do have to type a code in to post though, to ensure no computers/spam software post comments. If I start getting a lot of spam comments, I'll change the settings back to where only members can post. On to todays rant...

I know the United Methodists are going to groan at this one, but today I feel the need to rant about UMW. I LOVE the Women's Division. Thru my Deaconess connections I've met a few people from Women's Division and I think they are wonderful people, part of a wonderful organization with good priorities. Yes, they are somewhat on the liberal end of the spectrum, but all the more reason... However, the local congregation's UMW is NOTHING like the Women's Division. I admit that my experience is limited and there are particular frustrations within my local unit, but when I joined I expected so much more. The idea behind UMW makes a lot of sense to me - focus on mission, a place for women to get together to educate each other and contribute to the mission work of the United Methodist Church, etc. - but for some reason it doesn't translate to a good experience when you actually go to a meeting. I can't figure out where the major disconnect happens. In our particular unit (and I think others as well) there are pretty major generational divides. Older women who have been in UMW for 30+ years have certain expectations and desires for the group that younger women (meaning under 45) don't seem to find engaging or worth their time.

The part that really boggles my mind is this - the resources for UMW come from Women's Division, and the UMW unit generally uses those materials. Somehow the good resources die in the process of becoming a local unit meeting. Some people might say the meetings get bogged down with "business" - reading reports, voting on motions, etc. but in our particular unit that can't be true because we only have three leadership spots so there aren't that many reports to give! We are a small unit and struggle with how to get people engaged and involved. I know this is a struggle for all groups to some degree, and I had hoped that when I took part, I could somehow help breath some life into it. Instead I have a massive headache from banging my head on a brick lined with steel wall. Hearing other women (that are younger than 50) talk about how wonderful their UMW experience is and knowing that the Women's Division has big connections to the Deaconess program, I feel obligated to stick it out, but also wonder if it's worth the time and energy. If anybody out there has ideas on how to bridge the generation gap or breath new life into a dying group, please let me know!!