United Church of Christ

Hadwen Park Congregational Church UCC
6 Clover Street, Worcester, MA

April 29, 2012

This week United Methodist delegates from across the globe are meeting in Tampa, Florida, to consider changing church policies. No policy-change looms larger than a forty-year-old question about the extent to which gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people are respected in the life and leadership of the church. The current position bans “self-avowed, practicing” g/l/b/t/q clergy and prohibits clergy from officiating in same sex-weddings even as the policy affirms the sacred worth of g/l/b/t/q church participants.

Some argue that the global nature of the denomination demands sensitivity to non-European Christianities such as those blossoming on the Africa continent. Homosexuality is illegal in 38 of those countries and is even punishable by death in Sudan and Uganda. How can American Methodists expect Ugandan Methodists to accept gay or lesbian church leadership? Some anti-gay legislation advocates warn that Africans will leave Methodism if current prohibitions are lifted. I was contemplating the absurdity of that position last week when I remembered that a local UCC congregation recently created a G/L/B/T Asylum Task Force to minister to refugees from places like Uganda, Africa. So while the United Methodist Church searched for the lowest common denominator of toleration, I decided I would worship Sunday in a church that has moved beyond consumer math.

10 AM Worship April 29, 2012

Windows: Where God’s message came through to me.
The Well-Chosen Word. The pastor introduced most liturgical acts with helpful informal definitions. The Prayer of Confession was “Simply saying we’re sorry.” When it was time to offer silent prayer she told us that many of us need to share words with God that “we can’t say to anybody else.” Later, leading us into the Lord’s Prayer, she envisioned Jesus inviting us to “Pray words your confused disciples used when they didn’t know what else to say.” That last suggestion in particular turned this common prayer in a new direction for me because I wondered whether or not the pastor was referring to confused disciples from Bible times or confused disciples today? Or did she mean to suggest that I was the confused disciple who didn’t know what else to say? Somehow it seemed she meant all three simultaneously and that added a nice complexity to the mysterious encounter we casually refer to as “prayer.” I was most appreciative of the way the pastor defined people as either “singled” or “doubled.” We are not “partnered” or “married” or “coupled” but rather, “doubled.” Or we’re “singled,” rather than “not married,” “not partnered,” “not coupled.” All of these well-chosen words had the effect on me that a good Dr. Seuss book has; I enter a dreamy world where cultural rules are suspended.

Singled or Doubled. “We believe that all people of every age, physical and mental ability, body image, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, social-economic background, family construct, and faith tradition are equal in the eyes of God and this congregation. When entering our sanctuary, you will be greeted with a smile, an extended hand and feel the love of Christ surrounding you. Here, you are a stranger, but once” (From the program cover). This statement is shared every Sunday morning as a welcome. It functions as a vision statement as well. Hadwen Park Congregational Church voted in 2005 to publicly welcome “gay, lesbian, bi and trans folk”. I understand from a conversations with a lay leader that this decision led to desertion by a few members who did not agree with the vision. I suspect the UCC lost similar kinds of people when hundreds of shiny, red, “God is Still Speaking” slogans were hung from austere, white, clapboard congregational chapels across the Northeast and Midwest. “Never place a period where God places a coma.” If church people can’t adapt to changing realities and language, then perhaps the fresh word people may yet hear from God is “Don’t let the old door door hit you in the butt on your way out.”

Eclectic Songs. Our congregational songs were “Joy Dawned on Easter Day” (from the Pilgrim hymnal #241), Amazing Grace (two verses used as an “Ascription of Praise” after the confession (in my tradition we call it “Assurance of Forgiveness”)), “Seek Ye First” (used with a descant as a response to the Gospel or preparation for an upcoming “New Testament Reading,” “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us” (Pilgrim #252), “Give Thanks” (as a “Doxology” at offering), a parting hymn “You Have Come to the Lakeshore” (Printed in the program), and a cute little choral benediction, sung with all hands joined:

One in love, one in friendship true, one in hope, one in spirit too, one in faith that God will care for you, until we meet together again.

Seven chances to sing! That is good news if you like that sort of thing. My son counted seventy worshipers of which eighteen were men. He leaned over to me during one of the songs and observed that only three of those men appeared to be singing. Clearly not everyone enjoys so much congregational song, but I did. I liked the variety. I loved the two choral anthems “It’s My Desire” (a great gospel song actually performed like a gospel song, with rhythm and soul) and “I Will Call Upon the Lord” (The Music Director’s energy was contagious!).  A video of the later is included below.

Walls: What interfered with the message.

A Stranger Once.  My son and I could not see a parking lot when we approached the church, so we parked on the street about 50 yards from the building.  (I learned later that we parked near the pastor’s Prius, also parked way-down-the-street.  I think she did this intentionally.)  Once we walked closer we looked over the hedges and found the lot we could have used.  Duh.  We entered the building through the parking lot door and instantly realized we were not expected there.  First there was a sign about the food pantry being closed but no sign about worship.  No signs inside either.  Then we found no greeters anywhere from the parking lot right into our pews in the sanctuary.  No programs were given to us.  The pastor greeted us, but nobody else did.  My son fetches a program from a guy waiting at a different door for guests.  The program promises “When entering our sanctuary, you will be greeted with a smile, an extended hand and you feel the love of Christ surrounding you. ”  That didn’t really happen for us.  I’m not sure we had to feel like strangers once.  One greeter waiting for us (and for any physically disabled guests using the elevator on that side of the building) at 9:50 would have lessened the strange-ness.

Bad mic.  The speakers sounded like top-notch gear, which we loved.  We heard every word.  But the mic in the pulpit popped a few times at really awkward moments.  Really jarring.

Informality.  I love a certain level of informality in worship because I grew-up in churches that were informal.  Visitors were publicly identified and welcomed.  We “passed the peace” and hugged.  Lots of folks gave unscripted announcements or testimonies.  Participants were named in the sermon. We held hands during the Lord’s Prayer.  On one level this Sunday’s worship felt like returning home.  It was the opposite of the coldness I often felt in Roman Catholic and “high church” services, so the informality helped me feel at home.  But the moment I was identified as a visitor felt like the moment a child hears her name on the school speaker “John Jay, please come to the office!” and all the kids turn and wonder what she did wrong.  Visitors feel that attention like searing heat on the forehead.  I also loved and hated the hand-holding.  I admire the sentiment that we are all connected, but what happens when people drop hands?  There was not much relationship before the hand-holding and at the close of the service no-one came over to make good on that symbolic connection.  In fact that rarely happens in either churches that identify visitors or those that don’t.  Few long-timers take genuine interest in newcomers.  They might want us young folk to join up right away, but they do not seem interested in our spiritual journey or even our daily lives.  Where, then, is the connection?

AN INTERVIEW with a church newcomer.  Female, 40 years-old, former Roman Catholic.

What Message came through for you today?

Honestly, I was happy to hear the history of that Good Shepherd window over the altar.

Why do you need Jesus?

Jesus is a moral guide for me.  He models acceptance.

Why do you need Christianity/The Church?

I grew up Roman Catholic but in college my tastes became much more eclectic.  I was drawn to lots of different religions, especially Buddhism.  But I kept coming back to Christianity.  It is home to me.

Why do you need THIS church?

I visited Hadwen Park  Congregational Church last December after doing an Internet search of “Open Church.”  My former tradition was not tolerant of lesbians, so I knew I needed to find a church that was.  [I say, “So you drive by other churches closer to your home in Oxford just to attend this one because of the “Open and Affirming” stance you read online?”  She responded, “Yes.”]  A while back this co-worker of mine told me she was a UCC and told me about how most of them are really open minded.  She suggested I try Unitarians too, which I did.  But I knew that Jesus was really at the heart of my belief, so I finally I came here.  The Sunday that I visited I felt a sense of instant community.  I look forward to joining soon.

What music do you listen to in the car?

I have eclectic tastes.  I like 90’s country music such as Randy Travis and George Straight but I also like alternative and even rap.

Pilgrim United Church of Christ
911 Main Street, Worcester, MA

January 8, 2012

“The Woo,” a hip, new church of mostly young adults, shares space with Pilgrim UCC in a giant edifice on the south side of Worcester.  I visited The Woo in the summer of 2011 and enjoyed the vibe and the music, but the pastor was out of town in Jamaica.  At that time I discovered the tidy little traditional space where the Pilgrim Church worships before the Woo and determined to come back not only to worship with Pilgrims but also to hear Pastor Lucas who I was told preaches at both Pilgrim and the Woo.  How does he do that?  How would he tailor his message in such a way that it speaks to a more mature, traditional congregation and yet also to those who may not have been Christian very long?

Although I did get to worship with Pilgrim UCC I did not get to hear Pastor Lucas who was again, incredibly, in Jamaica!

WINDOWS

Chapel.The building has a giant body but the worship service was cradled by gentle hands of an attractive chapel.  Light, real, oak paneling offered a richness to the gathering. A lovely stained-glass depiction of Jesus’ encounter with a woman served as our focal point.  I kept trying to imagine which woman in the Bible this scene referenced.  As I sat there, I saw myself in the woman in the glass.

A Good Roof and Heat. It was announced during congregational concerns/prayer that repairs had been made to the roof and the downstairs heating system.  At the time this felt more like “announcements” than prayer and it was not welcome.  However I appreciated knowing that this small congregation continues to tend to this historic old building the way I guess I am glad when I visit an old relative and hear that they are exercising regularly.

Cooperation With a New Church. The sign out front heralded the availability of two worship services—one at 10:30 offered by Pilgrim UCC and another at 12pm offered by “The Woo”.  The differences between the two were clear from the two distinct websites and the names on the two signs.  The video below shows how a generously windowed-wall separates traditional “Pilgrim” worship space and contemporary “Woo” worship space.  An old organ on the Pilgrim side and two sets of drums on the Woo side.  They share space.  They also share worship leadership.  This morning the lead pastor was not present, however a delightfully engaging and joyful young woman offered the message.  A mother of four, this woman was apparently a more regular participant of “The Woo”.  It is nice to see that exchange of leadership.  I hope the contemporary church also receives the leadership and wisdom of those who prefer the 10:30 worship.

WALLS

Awkward Informality. I pay attention to the very first words spoken on a Sunday.  At Pilgrim the words spoken were “Well, you’re gonna have to deal with me today.”  I presumed the leader shared this as an apology for having no pastor present, but I wondered why we should feel sorry for her or for ourselves at the start of worship.  The same leader later expressed her gratitude for the warmth which is achieved by smaller churches where one can greet everyone unlike those larger churches.  There is no reason to express pride at such things, but also that scripted time of “warmth,” the passing of the peace, was actually quite awkward as participants only said “Peace be with you” and very quickly made their way to other people.  No one introduced themselves to us nor were they much concerned about who we were.

“Arlene’s Funeral.” Reading the church website I was sorry to hear about the death of one of the church’s beloved members, “Arlene.”  I hope what I am about to say will not be taken as disrespectful of Arlene.  When we arrive at the sanctuary there were no signs telling us that the sanctuary doors were locked.  We climbed the entrance steps toward a red, construction paper sign with a handwritten note telling us “Arlene’s funeral is to the left.”  I knew from the website that the funeral had taken place a week ago so was surprised to see the sign still up.   I was equally surprised that it was the only indication that either church was worshipping downstairs rather than in the main sanctuary.  When we arrived in our pew there remained two used tissues on the cushion—eww.  What bugged me most, however, was seeing a left-over program for Arlene’s funeral.  It bothered me not because it reminded me of death, but because the program seemed hastily composed.  I am no nit-picking editor, but I doubt a line should strike through text.  The church bulletin was better than the funeral program in all respects.  Didn’t Arlene’s program deserve as much attention as the Sunday worship program?  I actually felt anger at such a casual flier for a funeral.

A Dying Church? A few year’s back I read Paul Nixon’s “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church” and remember thinking “Good, someone finally said it!”  What he essentially claims is that churches HAVE A CHOICE to make between living and dying.  He elaborates on six particular decisions churches make.  For example a church these days must choose between fun and drudgery.  The Woo church on the right side of the partition, with its drums and video screens and energetic band looked fun.  The woman who came from “The Woo” to preach at Pilgrim looked like SHE was having fun!  However the church that meet on the left side of the partition was drudgery.  It was.  We endured hymns pitched so high that grown men had to use falsetto to sing parts of them.  Congregational prayer was actually a building report.  I watched aging Bertha in front of us rise and sit six times in order to participate fully in the drudgery.  Maybe Bertha likes that, but it is not fun for people like me.

Each church has to make a first decision even before the decision to have fun or not.   They must choose whether they want to live or die.  The middle ground between the two is killing any hope churches have of speaking of the power of God and the feasibility of discipleship with Jesus.   Pilgrim UCC seems to be a church which has rented its building and mission out to the Woo.  I am not sure why the congregation doesn’t simply sell the church outright to “The Woo” (they get the endowment) and choose to meet for tea in Bertha’s home.  And for Christ’s sake, let her sit through that worship service!

INTERVIEW:  White man in late fifties.  Three year participant at Pilgrim.

What kind of message came through for you today?

I feel God’s presence when I’m here.

Why do you need Jesus?

I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t have Jesus.  Jesus gives us a fuller way to live.

Why do you need this particular church?

I came from a local Baptist church because they changed leadership too much.  This place doesn’t change.  I liked the former pastor George, but he had a major stroke.  It is sad; now that he can’t speak he wants nothing to do with religion.  He has walked away from God.  I feel like I am here to keep trying to help him.  I do like the present pastor.  He is very good.

What kind of music do you listen to outside of church?

Country/Western—my favorite is Patsy Cline.  I also like Classical.  And I listen to religious music all day on Sunday.

First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Bridgton, ME

October 9, 2011

While leaf-peeping in southern Maine I searched online for a church near the Lakes Region.  The web-page for First Congregational Church caught my eye.   Open and affirming.  My kind of church.  I see an oversize picture of the “Air Force Band of Liberty” promoting an upcoming concert.  Eventually I get to the promotion of worship:

Upbeat, Bible-based Sermons packed with life-affirming help to live your life to its fullest. Music you’ll be humming all week.  Laughter to lift your soul.

  • Bible based sermon?  Ay-yuh (which is “yes” in Maine-speak).
  • Music you’ll be humming all week?  “My life– is -in- you, Lord…” and “Joy to the world”.  So, ay-yuh, I’m humming.
  • Laughter that lifted my soul?  Well, yes and no.

10 a.m.  Worship

WINDOWS

Architectural Harmony of Old and New.   The traditional white exterior  is beautiful.  From Bridgton residents  I learned that the UCC sanctuary was literally hoisted-up to accommodate modern, accessible space below.  The downstairs area featured a very clean and useful restroom area and, I think, an elevator.  Bright, tidy and open.    The interior sanctuary features attractive, painted tin ceiling AND wall panels.  I rarely see them on walls.  I didn’t love the orientation of the choir loft as the arrangement made me think choristers were on the toboggan ride at Disneyworld.  Choir members were joking loudly with each other before the official start of worship, so maybe that skewed my perception.  The lighting was decent too, because the church did not rely only on overhead chandeliers but had apparently updated with wall fixtures as well.  Good choice.

God is Still Speaking.   The call to worship came from the Sutta Nipata, an edited version of the words of Buddha.  [Check it out HERE]  We got our “Buddha”-on in a country, Protestant church!  I loved reading “May all beings everywhere, seen and unseen, dwelling far off or nearby, being or waiting to become [LOVE that!]: May all be filled with lasting joy.”  The service utilized 1995 hymn books which include inclusive language (ie. Instead of the traditional “Take it to the Lord in prayer”  this hymnbook offers “Take it to our God in prayer”.) and offer helpful commentary about the circumstances behind each hymn. I learned that the author of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” wrote the song as a consolation to his mum back in Ireland while he, living in Canada in 1855, sought to live strictly by the precepts of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  I had my own little epiphany thinking about my own “mum” back in Houston and my little experiment with spiritual living.  Hmmm.

Beyond these set pieces in the liturgy I was taken by the pastor’s reliance not only on ancient scripture (Exodus 32:1-14 and Philippians 4:1-9) but also on modern readings from economist Jeffrey Sachs and poet Mary Oliver. As he addressed inequities between rich and poor, I was surprised that the speaker did not mention how young people around the country were at that very moment “occupying” Wall Street and numerous other big cities.  In fact one religious group had even brought a large, golden calf to Wall Street reflecting EXACTLY the words this pastor read from Exodus 32, but it was not mentioned.  Still, the message prompted me to ruminate about the current situation, and that is more than I can say about some insular messages I have experienced. Divine wisdom hangs heavy on many branches here.

Theme Running Through Worship.  Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres  sometimes goads guests into unwittingly uttering the “Mystery Word” of the day.  The mystery word at Bridgton UCC was “joy”.  “May all beings be filled with joy,” says the Buddha.   “Rejoice,” says Saint Paul.  The congregation  sings “Enter, Rejoice, and Come in”.    We pray JOYS and concerns.  We sing the Christmas song “JOY to the World”.  Ay-yuh, “joy” is the mystery word.  I like how this thread is woven through so much of worship.   I’ve been in disjointed worship that left me feeling like I had just endured an hour of diverse commercials, but that was not the feeling here.  Thank you.

WALLS

Off-Putting Welcome.   The pastor asked if there were any visitors present.  I gasp.  I don’t want attention, especially not contrived attention, directed toward me.  I haven’t shaven–the goatee is not quite right yet.  And what will I have to do, share where I’m from?  Why I’m here?  Will they slap some geeky name tag on me as a laser tag for hospitality hawks?  Fewer and fewer churches are “outing” or exposing visitors these days for good reason, it is awkward.  Immediately after that a man does a pledge campaign routine.  The theme is “Pony Express” and the spokesperson is obviously uncomfortable with the gimmicky nature of the pitch.  I feel sorry for him. This is not a good beginning for worship, and the culprit is “announcements”.  So many churches carry-on mini business meetings at precisely the time when a participant craves a vital encounter with mystery and joy.   Can these announcements wait just a bit longer?  A church that visited in Worcester invites members to gather thirty minutes earlier for church business; could that be accomplished here?

I must admit that the church’s official “welcome” took place at the back door when I arrived.  A very helpful man conveyed me into the building and sensed that I had other questions [the bathroom!] and personally escorted me to the right area.  Wonderful.  Still, I somehow missed receiving a bulletin from anyone at the front of the church  (come on, it’s 10 minutes to worship!) and I walk past the robed minister who, sitting in the front row, is too busy with his smart phone to notice me.   Five people say “hello” to me when they are supposed to, during passing the peace time, but after the service no-one encourages me to join the church at refreshment time or to be a deeper part of the church family in any other way.

Squeaky pews and useless sound system.  There is not much more I can say about those pews.  They are very thin and each time I leaned against the back of the thing it squeaked.  I sat alone (see above problem) so I did not have to contend with other people’s shifting and squeaking.  How do they put up with this?  Don’t they know many churches are eager to unload old pews for free?  This church could get rid of the numbered pews and finally close the book on that dreadful former practice of renting them to families as a sort of tax.  They could buy padded chairs!  Surely if they can allow the Buddha into worship they can also allow chairs that big Buddha could enjoy, noise-free.

The sound system didn’t help the noise situation. The two, little, old speakers on the walls were not effective.  I watched an elderly member in front of me struggle to hear the children’s message and then seemingly give up and simply read the back of the bulletin.  It seemed to me that the microphones were not working at all.  If it was this hard to hear on a second visit, I would not return for a third.  It is that big an issue.

Low Regard for Children’s Education?   This appeared to be the Sunday when religious education started up again.  There were numerous children and young adults present. When time came for the Children’s Message, the pastor first invited two women with working dogs to the front and then I think he might have invited children to come as well, though that invitation was quickly flooded with details about this being “Access Sunday”.  Should I know what “Access Sunday” means?  It wasn’t in the bulletin as far as I could tell, however I DID read that this was the Sunday kids would start Sunday School, yet there was no mention of it.  In other churches this is usually a big deal, a time to express the importance of lifelong learning, a time to thank teachers, a time to welcome kids.  None of that happened.  Even worse, the two women and the pastor never seemed to address the kids directly but rather just blathered-on about what these dogs do for people in need, like those who have schizophrenia.   Do kids have any idea what schizophrenia is?  Neither the dogs nor the story seemed accessible to these young people.  “Access Sunday?”

I visited the nursery after worship.  The room is bright and clean enough, but I would feel uncomfortable leaving my toddler in a room that seemed designed for babies.  Actually, the room looked more like a holding area than a place where love and growth were expected.  Maybe it was the presence of that old-looking play-pen that dominated the room.  I was also uncomfortable to hear the nursery worker refer to the room as “my nursery”.   I get her point, but it is a ministry of the church, yes?  She told me she works there alone unless there are three kids and that is really too much for one person to handle.  True.  But she should not work alone with any kids given increasingly common, modern standards meant to protect children from sexual abuse.

QUESTIONS.

What kind of message came through to you today?

Husband:  For me it mostly comes through music.  So today I liked the theme of joy.

Wife:  I have been unemployed since the Spring and even though I am starting a job in a few weeks, it doesn’t compare to what I had.  So I am fearful and it is easy to sink into despair.  I appreciated the pastor naming and validating that fear.  I tend to “nest” when I’m anxious, and I feather the nest with material things.  The sermon encouraged me not to rely on material things to help me cope but rather on God.

Why do you need Jesus?

Husband: To know that there is a resurrection and to have forgiveness from sin.

Wife:  Jesus is God incarnate for us, and that helps me know God better.

Why do you need the Church?

Husband:  We are expected to keep the Sabbath holy.

Wife:  We need to connect to other Christians and we need a place to use our gifts.

Why do you need this particular church?

[At this point the husband has drifted away to tend to other business.]

Wife:  We attended another local church before this one.  My husband was the fourth generation in that church.  But the church was dominated by men who never really let me contribute.  I’ve been a professional fundraiser for several years and they wouldn’t let me help!  This church really encourages all members using their gifts, including women, of course.  In the former church we [at 45] were the youngest participants.  We found much better diversity here.

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