The one about the minister

A minister was bored one Sunday and decided to take the day off. He told the assistant minister he wasn’t feeling well and drove off. He stopped at a golf course about 40 miles away, where no one would know him.

Up in heaven, the angels were talking. “Are you going to let him get away with that?” one asked Jesus.

“No,” he said.

The minister teed off on the first hole and suddenly, the wind picked up and blew the ball 420 yards, right into the hole.

The angel looked at Jesus and said, “Why did you do that?”

Jesus smiled. “Who’s he going to tell?”


Stolen (forgive me, Father) from


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?

Back to school

Geek alert: A good friend clued me in to this Open Yale offering, Christine Hayes’ introduction to the Hebrew Bible course. Downloadable in mp3 and QuickTime formats.

Of course, I listened to the first hour ASAP, and now I’m off to get a copy of the Jewish Study Bible to follow along.

What we’re doing here

Sometimes a Big Question won’t leave you alone.

No, not “who is God?” or even “what does he/she want from me?” File those under Too-Big Questions, at least for this space.

The question in question dug into me a few months ago, when a friend said, “Our church is great because the people are the friendliest.”

And the journalist in me wondered, “Oh, yeah? Friendly, for sure, but the friendliest? Riiiight.”

And that was followed by a wondering: Just how is church — or Church — in other places, anyway? How do other people experience their Sundays, their congregations? How do they praise God, or petition him, or flail about, trying to find him? How is it in other pews?

Like many people past the age of reason, I’ve attended services in other churches. Weddings, christenings, holidays with the in-laws. I’ve even “church-shopped.” But in each case, I paid attention only to what was interesting to me, at that moment.

This year, I want to try something different. I want to try to experience worship as other people do. Consider this Comparative Religion: 101, with an emphasis on the experiential. I suppose I’ll have to address the What other people/denominations/faiths believe, but mostly I want to write about the How.

So this is the plan: I will visit a different “faith community” (an awkward word, but the best I can find right now) each week and write about what I find. Good stories, I hope. And I don’t intend to limit myself to Christian groups, though I come from the Christian faith.

How long? Well, a year, 52 weeks, a deck of cards of God-seeking tossed into the air.

We’ll see what cards land face up.

Next Newer Entries