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?”

Touche.

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.

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“Can We Find a Home Here?”

That is the title to a raspberry-colored pamphlet I brought home last Sunday from Birmingham Unitarian Church. It’s directed at interfaith couples, and the answer is — I’m not spoiling — “Of course!” (Of course.)

“If your life partner is someone who comes from a religious tradition different from your own, you are already familiar with the joys and challenges of creating intimacy across cultural boundaries,” I read aloud to my husband, after vetting with him that he is my “life partner.”

“Hey, what does that mean?” he asked. But he was playing fantasy baseball on the other computer, so maybe he wasn’t focused.

Good question. I think it means, among other things, that the Unitarians are highly educated and expect to have highly educated people reading their pamphlets. “Cultural boundaries,” “styles of interaction,” “search for truth and meaning” — I read on — these phrases are familiar to anyone who’s been through a liberal arts survey course anywhere. I think I committed all of them in one term paper or another.

So one “cultural identity” that the pamphlet assumes is that of “product of modern American higher education,” possible emphasis on modern (post-modern?) critical theory.

All well and good. I’m one of those products. I have the scars from my critical theory course with Stanley Fish to prove it.

So why did an hour in seminar at BUC leave me unsatisfied?

Because that’s what the worship felt like. It was a lecture — maybe a panel presentation — on civil rights and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with some moments for personal reflection on the above. Also, hymns.

This should be right up my alley! </cliche> The pink pamphlet even said: “Religious identity is closely tied with a person’s larger cultural background.” I’m fairly certain that most of my college edification insisted on some version of that. Cultural background is predictive.

And, yet, I missed something. Maybe passion. Maybe praise of God, who was so seldom mentioned. Maybe awe.

Why didn’t I find a home there?

“I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious”

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 jokes.net.

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?

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