Monday, December 7, 2009

Stained Glass And Powdered Cream

Upon waking up yesterday morning I decided that I would take the short walk uptown to a United church rather than taking the bus to First Unitarian, where I normally attend. The wonderful thing about living close to Uptown Waterloo is that I can stumble out of bed, shower quickly and be there in ten minutes or so. This time, however, I cut it a little close, and made it uptown just in time to scarf down a breakfast bagel and coffee in a record time of five minutes before making my way down the street to the church.

I had attended this church on one other occasion about three years ago, and I’ve also had the opportunity to enjoy several conversations with the minister over a cup of coffee.

My earlier view of the United Church, while still in my childhood and teenage years, was quite a negative one. As an evangelical, I quickly labeled the United – as well as Anglican – churches in town as “the dead churches;” similarly I thought of people who attended these churches as “dead Christians,” that is if they were even Christians at all. They were only a small step above those who attended the Roman Catholic church.

Obviously my ignorant practice of labeling this denomination is a thing of the distant past.

Upon arriving at the building, which is approximately seventy years old, the first thing that I noticed was a sign taped to the front door announcing “This is a nut-free zone.” There are too many jokes there, so I’ll leave them be, at least for now. But still I wonder, is this really necessary? Is the first thing that you want newcomers to see upon visiting your church a note about the church’s stance on peanuts in the building? I might very well feel differently if I had a child with such an allergy, but can you not put the signs on the cookie table in the auditorium instead? I know of no such people in society who have a penchant for dousing their hands in a vat of peanut oil before going to church, so the hand-shaking that inevitably takes place seems relatively safe (save for the too-tight grip of some usher who has had too much morning coffee.)

Even if such a group existed, this wouldn’t have been a worry at this church, as immediately upon entering the building there was a big bottle of Purell, even before you reached the coat rack. As if it weren’t obvious enough, there was a big piece of paper beside the bottle with the words “This is hand-sanitizer” on it. Phew! For a moment there I thought it was breath-freshener! Oh well, I guess I can handle the presence of a simple bottle of the stuff. At least I wasn’t in an Anglican church, where as of two Sundays ago priests are admonishing their parishioners to rub their neighbours arms and hands down with it during the passing of the peace.

But let us not only poke fun at the Uniteds and the Anglicans. At my church, for instance, it has been standard for months now that the service leader makes the following announcement:

“At the end of the service, we will hold hands. However, in consideration of concerns over H1N1, should you prefer to refrain from doing this, simply cross your arms (as if making an ‘X’ – I kid you not) or place your hands on the pew in front of you.”

Even the thought of this almost makes me barrel over in laughter. Should I ever have the opportunity to be a service leader, I will say the following to those assembled:

“Should you prefer to refrain from holding hands, simply turn to your neighbour and insult their personal hygiene or attire.”

Anyways, I digress.

Upon hanging my coat up (without sanitizing my extremities by the way – I live on the edge,) I heard the congregation singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” I was afraid that I had arrived late for the service, but apparently carol-singing is a normal practice before the service begins at this congregation. Upon being welcomed and handed a bulletin, I took my seat in pew #48, not too close to the front, but not at the back either. When the last strains of “O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord” were over, some random congregant shouted out a hymn number. I liked this, it brought a down-home, friendly feeling with it, and it reminded me of similarly structured hymn-sings when I was a kid. After “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” and “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” the service began.

It was nice to see the minister again. I was glad that it wasn’t one of those Sundays when you have a special speaker, who may or may not make you wish you had stayed home and built a fort out of your blankies. From the very beginning of the service, the sun was shining brightly through one of the stained-glass windows, directly into the ministers’ eyes. Conscious of how he appeared as he raised his one arm in an attempt to shield himself from the sun, he remarked “I feel like I’m taking part in a charismatic service!” That generated a hearty laugh from most in the congregation, including myself.

Continuing, I was impressed early on by the church’s emphasis on helping those in the community who were in need. There was an announcement concerning the need for donations of clothing for a men’s shelter, etc. Also, it turns out it was “White Gift Sunday.” When it came time for the children’s story, all the kids ran out among the pews and grabbed gifts that people had purposely brought for the occasion. Each of these gifts were wrapped in simple white paper or white plastic bags (those who used the bags were called out and spanked at the end of the service for being harmful to the environment.) Anyways, the idea of this, it was explained, was that the uniformity in d├ęcor ensured that no one gift would be seen as more or less important than the other. These gifts were donations for people in need, and there were a lot of gifts given. It was impressive.

Something else that I liked and which contributed to the friendly feeling was the “Good News” portion of the service, held immediately after the announcements. It simply consisted of the pastor asking the congregation if anyone had any good news to share. Spontaneous responses followed, mostly of birthday notices.

All of this led to a pleasant feeling for me at the beginning of the service. And I absolutely loved the sanctuary, with its aforementioned stained glass windows and old balcony.

After the general announcements, the gift giving, and the acknowledgement of Uncle Henry’s upcoming 75th birthday, the more formal part of the service started. A member of the congregation had the task of reading the first six verses of The Gospel of Luke, chapter three, which contains not one, but several almost impossible names to pronounce. Ituraea, Lysanias, Trachonitis. You could almost see the minister, who was seated directly behind him, smirking, as if he was indulging in a guilty pleasure having made this guy read this particular passage. But he passed with flying colours. This award-deserving feat (perhaps an extra pump of Purell?) was followed by a hymn, “There’s A Voice In The Wilderness.” The warm atmosphere was quickly being replaced with language and doctrine that, while still being familiar to my head, is increasingly foreign to my heart.

It was now time for the sermon, entitled “Edging God Out.” The minister, a genuinely warm, enthusiastic man, proceeded to leave the platform and he stood directly in front of the first pew, on the same level as the congregation. I understand this positioning, used by scores of ministers, but honestly sometimes it feels a little forced; “I’m going to show you, the congregation, that I’m on the same level as you by leaving the pulpit!” It can all seem a little too motivational speaker-ish sometimes, but in this case it was alright, if barely.

The minister proceeded to take the battery of his wireless microphone out of his pocket and fiddle around with it until he was assured it was in fact “on.” Now, this can be awkward at the best of times. I have been witness to countless ministers and other speakers fiddling around with wireless mics. This time seemed a little more odd, however, since he was dressed in a traditional white ministers vestment and “stole” (which for any heathen out there is a sort of glorified scarf that can be worn all year-round.) The juxtaposition of modern technology with traditional ecclesiastical garb had an awkwardness to it like the times when you watched your Grandpa trying to operate a VCR. I must say, though, that these microphones, the kind that one attaches to their lapel, are better than the headset variety, which leave many a parishioner wondering when they’ll be informed of Brett Favre’s latest touchdown pass.

The sermon was quite short, perhaps fifteen minutes in length. The main point of the address was that we shouldn’t edge God out of our lives, and that we may have to rid ourselves of some things (which were left unnamed, but perhaps referred to double chocolatey fudge cookies or pornography – a delightful combo by the way) in order to make room for God. Also, he said, we need to make room for compassion and the church community. Fifteen minutes and done. Back to the platform for a moment.

And then it was communion time. Now, I had noticed the communion plates on the table at the front of the sanctuary when I walked in. If I recall correctly, the last time I visited a Christian church it was a communion Sunday as well. As the service began I briefly considered taking part in the ceremony, but I just couldn’t do it. It was one thing to sing the hymns, take in the atmosphere and feel a sense of warm familiarity, but I could not take part in communion.

The minister and a member of the congregation led everyone (well, almost everyone) in a lengthy responsive reading, which included passages such as:

“We thank you, God, that you are mighty, that you create everything, this earth and the universe of which it is part, that you make us like yourself and for yourself; that you care for all that you make. O God how great you are.”

Now, this could be taken in a positive way if one connects with this way of belief and if they view God in this way. But I offer that too often, words of worship sound a little like they are directed toward a deity with an inferiority complex, someone who needs to be patted on the back again and again. It’s all a little too much for me.

This was followed by:

“We thank you, God, that you gave yourself, you gave Jesus your Son (read: now’s the time to turn your mind into a pretzel in order to try and figure out this theology, especially if you’re a newcomer) a person like us but unlike us faithful to you (read: “I’m a bad boy, please re-enforce that”), one who died as we die but unlike us accepted death though it meant to be broken on a cross.”

And a little later on:

“We declare our faith that he is alive and master of all; we witness to the hope that he will come again (newcomer: “I’m officially lost, when will this be over already!)”

I let the communion bread and the juice pass by.

The post-communion prayer was more impressive. It included the words: “Grant that we may become mature Christians, that ours may be faith which issues in action.”

This was followed by a closing hymn, and a benediction by the minister, at which point he raised two fingers in the air. I was gearing up for a Vulcan parting ritual, but no such luck.

Immediately after the service I was approached by a guy we’ll call Dave, since that was his name. His first words to me were “You look like someone who knows his way around church.” Now, that could have been the worst pick-up line ever, but there was no wink and he didn’t refer to me as “big guy,” so I don’t think that was his intention. But apparently something about me just oozes “guy who goes to church” and we proceeded to chat for a while. On our way to the gymnasium for coffee time he twice referred to me as Mark Anthony, instead of Mark Andrew. I politely corrected him, but next time may bring Jennifer Lopez with me to further confuse him.

I was kind of annoyed that by the time I grabbed my ceramic mug and reached the coffee-maker, the coffee was almost gone. Thankfully, one of the workers was nice enough to tip it over so that I could have some. However, that nice feeling was soon overshadowed by the presence of that dreaded substance, Coffee-Mate. What is it with churches and Coffee-Mate anyways? Churches and funeral homes (and at funeral homes can you really be sure that it’s powdered cream that you’re putting into your coffee?) Terrible stuff. My church as celebrated its share of big events in the last couple of years, namely the move to a new, bigger building, as well as the hiring of our fantastic new minister. However, the addition of half-and-half has got to be a close third.

Anyways, I had a cup and proceeded to have a good chat with the minister and then his wife. Dave approached me again and laid hands on me. Just kidding, turns out he has a wife and three kids.

All in all, I’m glad that I attended on Sunday. It’s just unfortunate that the warm atmosphere was cooled by the language and theology, both of which I suspect is even more distancing to a newcomer who is unfamiliar with Christianity, than it is to me.