Flesh and blood, scars and blemishes

Another guest post from Mr. 52godpickup.

Noon Sunday Mass, Holy Name Church, Birmingham, Michigan.

When I’m backed into a corner and forced to say that I live in Birmingham, I sometimes add, in a weak joke, “in the poor part of Birmingham.” In my working-class Irish family we were taught by example to never let them think you’re putting on airs and never, ever let them guess what’s in your bank book.

Holy Name is most definitely in the part of Birmingham where the third generation of immigrants are lawyers and doctors and auto company executives, and where I hope at least one of my children will someday own a house with a little apartment above the garage where mom and dad can spend their old age gardening and volunteering.

My wife, knowing and probably despairing of my working-class sentimentality, had first steered me to the other Catholic churches nearby, but I was attracted to Holy Name’s Mass at the civilized hour of high noon. I ventured, and was glad of it.

To start with, the sanctuary is beautiful and the building bursts with meeting rooms, offices and conference rooms. I could easily picture a national brokerage or a marketing team taking over the place for the week.

In the lobby I saw more signs of success — posters and placards recognizing this year’s confirmation class of 124 eighth-graders. Yes, Holy Name has a school, but even so, 124 eighth-graders are practically a regiment of soldiers for Christ.

In the pews, I counted at least 200 worshipers, including a smattering of elderly gentlemen, white-haired but bursting with vitality, as if they had breakfasted on oatmeal and cantaloupe and then dashed off a few sets of tennis before going to fulfill their Sunday obligation.

More signs of vitality in the missal, which had three pages of local business advertising — and not just plumbers and roofers but also Realtors, financial advisors and orthodontists.

Then the Mass unrolled with its timeless comfort of ritual, familiarity and mystery. Even the new responses seem familiar by now. I had lapsed as a Catholic years ago, when I was a new father and I was frustrated by the Church’s near-criminal fumbling of the sex-abuse cases. (I remember a respected great-uncle snarling, “The bishops couldn’t manage a corner grocery.”) I was reminded today that home is always home. The Catholic Church will always take me back, should I choose to return.

And then the Rev. Msgr. John Zenz delivered a wonderful homily on Luke 24, in which the Risen Lord appears to His disciples and invites them to inspect the wounds in His hands and feet to see that He was indeed real. And then He said He was hungry and asked for a piece of fish to eat.

“Matter Matters” was Zenz’s title and his point: The risen Christ was not an apparition or an abstraction. Easter is not a metaphor, a celebration of new life blooming in spring, like crocuses bringing forth new flowers. Easter is a celebration of Jesus Christ rising from the dead as a physical body. And eating fish.

So we should remember that our outward glowing signs are not the whole story. We too are flesh and blood, scars and blemishes, wounded in all kinds of physical and psychological ways.

And it is our scars that are our bridge to Christ. He suffered; we will suffer. He rose; we will be resurrected.

Wonderful to hear that message insisted upon.


Second cousin to compassion

A guest post from Mr. 52godpickup, who did some seeking while I finished tax season.

11 a.m. Sunday worship, Pilgrim Congregational Church, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

I counted 23 souls in the sanctuary and it left me with an unfortunate moment of pity — the poor second cousin to compassion — and then the brooding sense one gets when watching a BBC documentary on ancient Crete.

Surely this was a thriving congregation once. There are pews available for a couple of hundred and a roomy parking lot out front, down the stone steps. A nice piece of real estate, too, on the nexus of Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Troy.

Where did the people go? Why did they leave? Were there angry words? A divisive pastor search? Or did members just slowly fade away, until the survivors went to church one fine morning, blinking in the summer sun, and realized they were alone?

These are interesting questions for a member of a declining Mainline Protestant church whose leadership bravely insists, as mine does (or did, I can’t decide yet), “We will not lead a dying congregation.”

The sad answers, I think, are the same for a church as they are for aging Japan and old Europe — when you lose children’s time, when the families go elsewhere, when your day-care centers are converted to nursing homes, then maybe only prayer can help you.

(Don’t get me wrong. A society needs octogenarians as much as we need toddlers, if only in part to answer some of the questions a visitor might bring, and to give younger members the sense of wonder I get when speaking to someone who was there at the founding … in this instance, 1961.)

To their credit, the people at Pilgrim Congregational Church understand their situation. Perusing their Sunday missal this morning, they pray that “God would bring new people to Pilgrim both to minister to and help us accomplish His plans for Pilgrim,” and, even more touchingly, that “God will direct Pilgrim to make any changes that He wants us to make and that we at Pilgrim would be open to His direction.”

And then the last chords of the opening hymn fell away and all these academic and gloomy thoughts were washed away by an organized, sincere jewel of a service that took as its cornerstone the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Paul’s message of joy was transmitted in the hymns, the Offertory Prayer, the formal Gospel reading and the informal sermon, all working to remind us, as Paul did in his missive from a Roman prison cell, separated from old friends and colleagues back in Macedonia, that the glass is not half-full or half-empty but always overflowing with God’s love for us.

That was Pastor John’s answer to me. What do you do when you have just 23 “saints,” as the church’s part-time preacher suggested we were? Well, you do the best you can and you thank God for the opportunity to deliver the message, and to absorb it.

Wishing to satisfy the crowd

11 a.m. contemporary Shine worship, First United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Michigan.

I’ve spent my life in small congregations, sometimes ones so small that they didn’t even have a permanent home for worship.

Cozy, yes. Claustrophobic, sometimes.

But chiefly “without many resources.”

First Church is one of the largest congregations in my hometown, but that isn’t why I chose it this Sunday. First Church is also the site of Friday Night Lights, which is a once-a-month rave that attracts 500+ middle-schoolers. Fun? “Made of awesome,” my seventh-grade son says.

So I thought he might not mind accompanying me to a contemporary worship at the very location of so much awesome, i.e, First Church’s Christian Life Center. I kinda figured he’d balk at the traditional worship being held in the sanctuary at the same time. (Two simultaneous services! A first for me.)

“Ooh, coffee,” my son said, coming through the entrance doors to the CLC. “Coffee, coffee, coffee!” Other churches have coffee before worship (see yesterday), but First Church has coffee with optional hazelnut and vanilla flavorings. And hot chocolate. With mini-marshmallows.

“You can take it in to worship, if you like,” said Cheryl, behind the counter. She pointed to the to-go lids and then to the gym behind me, where the band was warming up with a tune I couldn’t quite recognize. All right, then. The boy — converted for the price of a Starbucks — and I took our coffees to seats on the basketball floor.

First Church’s band is of the Christian pop-rock variety, professional and professionally amplified, with lyrics projected on big screens above our heads. The music is way more modern than 19-century hymns, but from my son’s stony look, I gather it’s nothing like what he listens to on his own.

Or maybe he was trying to maintain his cool. “I don’t do singing,” he whispered to me during the second song, as the crowd began to clap on the backbeat.

“Do you do dancing?” I whispered back. He gave me the Preteen Look of Horror, but he did stop frowning.

The rock concert stage may be the chancel of our times, but still, there are no altars in basketball gyms. Rev. Brian William paced in front of the microphone stands to deliver a sermon on Mark 15:15. You know, where Pilate asks the bloodthirsty mob which prisoner they want released, Barabbas the thief or Jesus.

Pilate knew the right thing to do, William said. But Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd — and so a great evil was done. When evil takes root among a crowd of people, what grows is horrific: Rwanda, Cambodia, Kosovo. On and on.

But in looking around a church built with so many appealing, market-tested features — new classrooms and youth parties, rock music and coffee bars — I couldn’t help but think that sometimes “what would satisfy the crowd” can lead to good. (And not just “good vanilla coffee.”)

First Church sponsors a ministry called Art & Soul at Central UMC in Detroit. Volunteers go on Mondays and Thursdays to help homeless people express themselves through art. (If you think “expressing yourself” is the least important thing a homeless person needs, ask yourself why a homeless person should need it any less than you do.) Only a prosperous church — one that has more than enough resources — can hope to offer a ministry like that.

We saw a short film about one visit, in which homeless Detroiters decorated cupcakes. One man decorated with gusto, piling sprinkles and frosting so high that the First Churcher helping him finally squeaked out, “Less is more!”

“Girl,” the man told her, “less is NOT more.”


“I’m not who I ought to be, but I’m not who I was”

I managed to fall behind in the first weeks of a new job — or I succumbed to the sin of procrastination — so now I’m finally posting about a church visit in January.

11 a.m. Sunday worship, Grace Baptist Church, Birmingham, Michigan.

“How many of you have brought your Bibles?” Pastor Charles Whitfield asked those of us crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews.

Two hundred Good Books went into the air. (But not mine. I’m used to Bibles in the pew, not in the purse. But a sweet woman to my left pressed hers on me, and she shared her husband’s.)

“Oh, it’s good to see so many Bibles here today,” he said and beamed.

And there you have a key difference in Christian worship, between those churches in which they have Bibles in the pews but don’t really expect you to take them out (Catholic, Unitarian), those in which the Bible is there so you can follow along during the Scripture readings (Lutheran, et al) and those in which you bring your own, preferably in a personalized cover and with bookmarks bristling.

Grace Baptist Church is one of two churches within a quarter-mile of my house. I’ve walked or driven past it at least two thousand times in the past 10 years, but I’d never gone in. Maybe I was put off by the “Baptist.” Not my people. Could not ever be my people. In this I share the prejudice of many in my particular corner of liberal Christianity, a prejudice that deserves a lot more scrutiny than I can get into today. But we will return to it.

And maybe I was put off by the knowledge that the church had been there for 50 years with the same pastor and by the glimpses of gray-haired congregants going in. Never mind that my church — like many churches — has plenty of gray-haired congregants. God willing, I will be a gray-haired congregant someday, too soon. But surely Grace Baptist was a sleepy, boring place to visit. Surely.

So of course I got kicked in the prejudice.

For one, the service was packed. I later learned the congregation was on its second sanctuary in the same building, having outgrown the first, but even so, we filled every inch of the pews and spilled out into the lobby. My seasoned-journalist count came to about 200 in the pews themselves, and that would not include the 25 or so choir members arrayed behind the pulpit. I’d arrived 10 minutes before the 11 a.m. service, not realizing that the 10 a.m. Sunday School advertised on the church sign was not all that optional — everybody had come to that — so I had to ask politely at several pews before I found one that could shift enough to find me a seat in the middle. So much for sleepy.

For two, Whitfield — who has been the pastor of Grace Baptist since 1956, before I was born, so do the math — had the fire of a platoon of younger men.

After crooning approvingly over our Bibles, he directed us to Romans 1. Now, Romans 1 doesn’t get read much in my liberal Christian church — too much punishment of idolators and too much fulminating against “males (who) gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another.” (I think this passage of Paul’s gets misread, but never mind.) We’re too “open and affirming” to sanction such talk from the pulpit. I braced myself. I was really liking this worship service — from the baptisms to the fine choir to the friendliness of my pewmates — and I didn’t want to start hating it.

It is really something to hear someone read Scripture well, someone who knows the text so thoroughly he makes it both conversational and poetic. I wonder if the letter sounded as natural to the church in Rome in its original Greek. And then Whitfield stopped on a sentence I hadn’t expected. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel!” he read, and repeated. And he was off. What is there to be ashamed of? he demanded . Why shouldn’t we share the good news we’d found? Why should those of us who’ve found salvation in faith in Jesus Christ — who have embraced that gift — be ashamed to bring that gift to others? “Amen!” called out a man two pews ahead. “Amen!”

But what of those of us who think we’re not good enough to spread the gospel? The work doesn’t need perfect people, Whitfield promised us. God will make us who we need to be. “I say, ‘I’m not who I ought to be, but I’m not who I was,'” he  thundered.

“Amen, amen!” went the congregation.

I wonder if that isn’t the power of the evangelical churches, and why they grow when the old-line (what gets called “mainstream,” even as the numbers dwindle) Protestant churches don’t: They give their members a purpose, something to do. You have been saved, now go spread the word. Your role is clear.

Later, during coffee hour — no, not a single person asked if I saved, though many people came up to talk to me — I met a woman who had grown up in Grace Baptist, then had moved to Florida. A bad marriage and a couple of babies later, she found herself in metro Detroit, looking for work. She found a job with a bank and was assuming she’d have to move to another suburb. Then, suddenly, the bank called her. Could she work in Birmingham? Did she know the town? And so she found a house a couple of blocks from her childhood church, and brought her kids to where she’d been raised. “I think the Lord made it happen,” she told me. Her daughter, now a lovely young woman, smiled beside her.

Not a bad way to find a church.

Do you need a hug?

11 a.m. Sunday worship, Unity Church of Royal Oak, Royal Oak, Michigan.

Unity Royal Oak is the huggiest church I’ve seen. No sooner had I walked in the door than a dapper older gentleman in a plaid suit greeted me with a huge smile and open arms. “We hug around here,” he told me. Then he pointed to the pastor, who was coming down a ramp out of the fellowship hall to the entrance. Another hug. There were maybe 40 members at worship that Sunday, and I think I was hugged by 30 of them. I ran out of time for the other 10.

Do you miss the counterculture?  Unity as a Christian movement dates to the late 19th century, but its ethos feels a little 1970s commune: We are all children of God, perfect in every way, let’s join hands and sing, “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” (Which we did, swaying, at the end of the service. Too bad I didn’t remember the words.) It’s hard to not like a church that likes you, really likes you, so easily. Not even my self-defensive cynicism could keep me from being charmed.

But if you stand on formality — of any kind — Unity Royal Oak wouldn’t be your place. Even the sanctuary has the genial air of a studio in mid-project, tidied for company. We sat in theater seats, not pews, in the nave, and the sanctuary had no altar, no cross and no image of Jesus, though a huge print of two plump and dreamy angels guarded the piano in the corner. There were some candles and baskets and mirrors scattered behind the lectern and propped against an impressive carved console table, and a ladderback chair here and there. I couldn’t help it; I looked around for a macrame plant-hanger. (Sorry.)

Pastor Chuck Hancock had been deconstructing the Lord’s Prayer over several weeks, and this Sunday he got to the phrase “give us this day our daily bread.” Hancock doesn’t sermonize so much as muse in a stream of consciousness, and he threw his musings out to us. What is “bread”? What do we need? Why do we lack faith that God will provide? Why do we feel guilt? Etc.

Musing and questioning make for a great meditation, but it drives the journalist in the pew nuts. How am I supposed to summarize this? Somebody give me the points and subpoints. So I sat, twitching and irked, and then Hancock said something like, “Why do we not understand that everything we have been given this day is exactly what we need and that we need nothing more?”


After the meditation, the musings and the peace-singing — and many more hugs — we repaired to the fellowship hall and kitchen for tuna casserole, croissants and fudge cake. I was in the coffee line behind Donna, a fellow church-seeker. She said she’d gone to a Unity church a few years ago with a friend, and then fell away. “I’m not sure why,” she said. The people in Unity churches are so warm and welcoming, she said. “Like the Mormons. Those are really nice people, too.”

As for John, who drives in from Dearborn, Unity “just makes sense.” A friend of his, Frank, praised Hancock, whose Bible studies and lectures had impressed him. “He’s really funny,” Frank said, “and really deep, too.”

I’d noticed that the congregation was more integrated racially than any other I’d visited, but there were no children or teenagers. And no, there wasn’t a Sunday school class, though there is a weekly discussion course on “A Course in Miracles.” The Rev. Cathey Jo Tomilenko leads that, and I made a point of finding her among the diners. Would it be all right to join that group weeks from now, after my seasonal job was over?

She seemed delighted. “Of course!” she said. And then, yes, she hugged me.

The people of the words

11:15 a.m. worship, Birmingham Unitarian Church, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

So far, the Unitarians win for sheer volume of printed matter. Mere minutes after I’d come through the doors at Birmingham Unitarian Church, I began to be loaded down with color-coded brochures on how to be a Unitarian Buddhist, a Unitarian Christian, a Unitarian Jew, a Unitarian Humanist and, in case I couldn’t decide, a snappy title that invited me to “Meet the Unitarians.” Forget tablets. The Unitarian God speaks in pamphlets.

This first snowdrift was followed by an order of service with hymn inserts, and much later, during coffee hour, with a newsletter and a couple of other papers I still haven’t unfolded. My petite go-to-meeting purse groaned.

In many ways, I like this. The Unitarians seem eager to make sure you understand what you’re getting into. And if you don’t, they always have another way to get the lesson across.

But in other ways, it reminds me of the disclosure documents I ask clients to sign at my other gig as a tax preparer. Could anything that needs this much verbiage be in my favor? Must my relationship with God come with subpoints? How much of this is going to be on the final?

At any rate, I and DD had chosen to worship with the Unitarians on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial day in part because Ebenezer Baptist was a bit of a trek and in part because an MLK Jr. celebration just seems to conform to my conception of Unitarian-Universalists. You know? Nice people who believe in the tenets of the great Civil Rights Era. Pacifism, power to the people, equal rights and tolerance. Old-skool liberalism without the messy wrangling over entitlements.

The service didn’t disappoint. We heard about Harriet Tubman, complete with PowerPoint slides. We sang spirituals that coded directions for the Underground Railroad. DD colored a sheet of quilt patterns, also coded with directions for escape. We even got a monologue by Abraham Lincoln (courtesy of Greenfield Village).  Upon direction from the pastor, we passed pebbles — our “stones of hope,” from one of Dr. King’s speeches — to each other, with blessings for the future. We heard a tribute by the pastor to her Texan mother, who had grown from a distrust of “coloreds” to acceptance and friendship.  All dignified, all unimpeachable, all beautifully spoken.

And yet, a bit … cerebral? And safe? We shook our heads sadly over the sins of the past, none of which we, personally, committed and none of which (we are pretty sure) we will need to answer for. (Wait. Scratch that word, “sin.” No one used it Sunday.) We sighed over the need for the world to be “just” in some unspecified and remote way. The closest we came to hearing a personal charge was the pastor’s wish that we each find some way to move forward with hope. Fill that in as you see fit.

Just to be ornery, I counted the number of times I heard “God” in the service — I think I came up with four, two of which were quotes from Dr. King. Indeed, we were told that King was sustained by his hope for a better future and his faith, not in God or Jesus Christ (wholly absent), but in a “mysterious Divine Being.”

I wonder what Dr. King would say.

Home base: Prayers of the people

10:30 a.m. Sunday worship, Congregational Church of Birmingham, United Church of Christ, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

My New Year’s worship was at my current home base church, Congregational Church of Birmingham, United Church of Christ, in Bloomfield Hills. I’ve been a member … nine years? Something like that. CCB is where I found myself after the birth of my second child, but that’s a story for another time.

In a big congregation, you can sit in the pew and slip out without speaking to anyone (see yesterday), but not at CCB. Maybe 100, maybe 125 souls turn up for Sunday worship. You can’t hide. You can’t even get through a coffee hour without being (gently) recruited for a committee. And I say that with love.

Is so much … community … comforting, or terrifying? I go back and forth. But I would say when a congregation is small, that fact changes the worship experience: Everything becomes personal. The announcements, the sermon — everything is an occasion for our pastor (or anyone else in the pulpit) to share details from her life, to make jokes with the people in the first pews, to name people by their first names. You are known in a small church, and that is as much a part of the worship as prayer and singing.

Which bring me to “the prayers of the people.” The Catholic in me was puzzled by that aspect of worship, the “lifting up of joys and concerns” to God in the presence of the congregation. I cringed at so much exposure. I wondered what I was supposed to do with all this information, all those babies born, parents buried, biopsy results awaited, job interviews anticipated, etc., etc., etc. I couldn’t remember all of it, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t praying for the whole congregation individually and specifically every day. And I resented being (made to feel) guilty. Aaaurgh.

But this New Year’s service, I slipped into a Zen state and was able to listen to the prayers offered without the little me-me-me game that usually runs in my head. No, I don’t remember most of the concerns, but I did notice one: A member was battling a stubborn kidney stone. Aiyee.

But with the wince, I felt a reflexive yearning that my friend be healed and eased that instant, a petition to God that came without words or thought. It came so quickly and so fully I realized it only later, in the traces it left. Sometimes your heart opens, and you know it was the Spirit who pried it open, against your defenses.

Who was healed? That is the mystery of faith in a small church.

Going home by another way

10 a.m. Mass, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church, Beverly Hills, Michigan.

So today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the week in which the promise of Jesus’ birth first becomes clear to the larger world. Also, the week in the year we sing “We Three Kings,” one of my favorite carols. Such a Catholic holiday called for a visit to a Catholic parish, so I chose Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, which would be my home parish if I were to join one.

The readings today were from Isaiah 60, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (leaving aside whether he actually wrote it) and, of course, Matthew 2:1-12, the made-for-cinema story of the wise men. The astrologers come to Jerusalem and start asking everyone where the newborn king of the Jews might be found. Cut to King Herod — give him a pointy black beard — gnawing his be-ringed knuckles in distress. “All of Jerusalem,” so we hear, joins him in distress. Because there could be a new king? Or because there might not be a new king soon enough? Call that foreshadowing.

Herod brings the wise men to him “secretly” (let him believe that) and insists the magi return to him ASAP with a report on the child’s location, so that he, too, might pay the child homage. (Dum -dum-DUM goes the soundtrack. Not even the preschoolers believe Herod.) It’s hard to imagine this scene without some tasty bribes gifts being pressed upon the visitors from the East. The wise men leave, find the Child and then, warned in a dream, go home by another way. Thus proof that they are, indeed, wise men.

What sent them another way? The messengers of God, yes, but as our pastor said, the true pointer came from their encounter with God in the Christ child, after which their lives could not continue on the same road. So should we open ourselves to the presence of God in the Eucharist, which, too, will set our lives on a new, better path. That was the homily.

A journey out and then a different return home. That seems to me much like my endeavor here, my mid-life seeking after … God, I suppose. Maybe through fellowship with God’s people, the other travelers. I took one path to this point in my life, but I doubt the answers can be found by doubling back.

And so I ask: Which leg of the magi’s journey was the more important?