Con’t from Sabbatical Church Hopping Part I
3) Sunday January 22, All Souls Unitarian Church Tulsa. I was sick on this day and was unable to go to a physical church service like I had hoped to, but remembered that All Souls livestreams all their worship services. http://www.allsoulschurch.org There are two – a traditional worship service early morning and a contemporary service late morning. I had attended one of their contemporary services in person a few years ago but never a traditional service, so decided to watch that one. I got out both my hymnals so I could sing along with the hymns if I wanted to. They have several cameras positioned through the sanctuary so that you can see from many angles. There is a choir that sings from the balcony. All Souls Tulsa is predominantly theist with a lot of other forms of theological diversity, but you can see the theistic bent come out in both their ministers. Their senior minister, Marlin Lavanhar, was preaching this Sunday. I always enjoy Marlin’s sermons. They are rich in imagery, packed with information, and steeped in UU theology. He doesn’t mince words. He is quite prophetic and inclined to push his congregation. He’s not afraid to make people uncomfortable. He doesn’t seem to be afraid to be uncomfortable himself. He’s always taking the next step and encouraging the congregation to do so as well. He’s also able to do this from such a place of love and with a deep sense of authority that his congregants seem to love him even more for it. I think Marlin is one of our best ministers and I liked being able to see him do his thing live.
While I was waiting for the service to start, I surfed their website. All Souls is, interestingly, in the same place as the congregation I serve. They are looking at whether they want to stay at their current property or move to another location in downtown Tulsa. I have to admit when I saw this I was a bit stunned. They have a huge facility. A gorgeous sanctuary. A massive RE wing. And what seems to me, lots of parking. But alas, they’ve grown to over 1000 members and things are getting tight. Their hope had been to continue to buy up adjacent properties, and they have done that, but they seem to have maxed out in that capacity. So now, they are at a crossroads. Stay or go? I couldn’t seem to find information about how they were going to make that decision, but it is definitely in the air. I want to keep my tabs on what they’re doing, especially as we are struggling with the same questions.
The service was, as always, clean and professional. There is a simplicity to their services. Not a lot of frills. Almost puritan. A gorgeous sanctuary with huge windows. Basic chancel. Excellent choir. Excellent musicians. Good solid preaching.
All Souls does something called theming. There is a central theme every month, and every aspect of church life is focused on that theme. All the sermons build on the theme. The children religious education has their story of the month and they spend the entire month exploring the story in light of the theme. There are adult education sessions focused on the theme. The newsletter is focused on the theme. January’s theme was Justice and the service I listened to was about money and justice. How we spend our money reflects our values. Where do we spend our money? How much money do we give away to our church and to organizations that work to make our values real in the world? How much do we keep for ourselves? One of the points I will remember is that the U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, per capita, but also one of the most unhappy and unsatisfied. Countries that are poorer, with lower per capita incomes, are often much happier than we are. Poor people around the world also tend to be more generous than we are. Yet we have been taught that possessions create happiness.
I really like their theming and am spending some of my sabbatical exploring what that might look like for Emerson. Many congregations around the association are adopting theming and All Souls has made many of their resources available online. The great thing about Tulsa is that one of their outreach ministries is to serve small UU congregations who do not have the resources to develop this kind of programming on their own. They see it as their responsibility to share their resources and their learning, often for free. Thank you All Souls for being a flagship congregation in our association.
4) Saturday January 28. Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Synagogue. Clayton MO. I visited this congregation with a couple who are friends with my partner and I. They graciously said yes when I called and asked if I could come as their guest. They warned me that their congregation is very small, about 20 people on a given Saturday and that I would immediately be identified as a guest. I said I was fine with that if they were.
Reconstructionism is a form of Judaism unique to North America. It is very progressive, so they ordain women, support same sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose. Women are full participants in the service and they have a deep acceptance of religious diveristy. They fully believe that religious texts can speak to modern life so long as they are not taken literally. The Torah is sacred and holy, but must be interpreted and questioned and worked with. It is an ongoing dialogue rather than sealed revelation.
But they are also very traditional in some ways. The service is almost completely in Hebrew, except for the teaching. They do not take being Jewish lightly. Being Jewish is central to them and there is deep truth, mystery, and wisdom in their faith tradition, which is enduring and powerful.
I would have to say that I felt somewhat uncomfortable in the service, not because I disagreed with anything I heard, but because the service format was so foreign to me. I couldn’t sing because I didn’t know how to pronounce the words and there is no music to accompany the words. Everyone just knows the tune. So I listened. Luckily, their prayer book is amazing. Not only is there an English translation beside everything that is being sung or spoken, there is also commentary under that. I loved it. So I could hear the Hebrew, read the English, and then the commentary. (My to do list now includes acquiring a copy of their prayer book.) I thought the commentary was beautiful and meaningful. I absolutely love experiencing progressive theology. Much of what they spoke/sang were Psalms and I grew up with the Psalms, so to experience them in their origin, the religion from which they emerged, and in the context of progressive theological interpretation was deeply meaningful and powerful for me. So even though I felt uncomfortable, like a fish out of water, and very visibly not part of the congregation, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I did not feel physically comfortable, but I felt very spiritually welcomed.
This is a small congregation, so there was no formal teaching. Instead, the Rabbi sent around a handout with a selection of Midrash and Talmud based on the Torah reading of the day. Then he proposed some questions and had us pair up for short discussion. Then the group came together and shared their thoughts. I really enjoyed hearing how they interpreted their texts and how they made them come alive for them. There was such deep questioning. I deeply appreciate Judaism for how it validates questioning as an expectation of faith.
I intentionally chose not to participate in the group discussion, although I was invited to partner with my friend, and I was glad to have a place to ask my questions. But when it came time to speak in the group, I felt like it would have been disrespectful for me to voice an opinion my first time. I was there to learn, to hear their thoughts and ideas, and honestly, I knew far too little, in my opinion, to have an educated opinion. It was time to be open and to listen.
The couple who took me had shared, quite openly before we went, the challenge the congregation is facing. There are no children. The group is at about 40 members, give or take. Very few are joining. They like it small but realize the community will dwindle if they don’t make some changes. Some really want to be visionary and intentionally grow the congregation. Others want it to stay just like it is. And yet others want it to grow and have it stay exactly what it is! (sound familiar?) The stakes seemed quite high, and I could hear their concerns come out in some of the discussion. Layered on top of it all is the concern with preserving the Jewish faith and tradition. They know that most of their kids and grandkids are no longer practicing. Being Jewish in a melting pot is not always easy because many are pretty much joining the melting pot. What are they called to do at this time? What does it mean to be Jewish in the U.S in the 21st century? What will it mean for their children and grandchildren?
After the service, I was warmly welcomed by just about everyone in the room. I really enjoyed their company and felt the welcome was deep and authentic. I was invited to come back any time.
5) Sunday January 29th. First Congregational Church of St. Louis (United Church of Christ). We are blessed at Emerson Chapel to have an Office Administrator who is the wife of the Conference Minister of the Mid-Missouri District UCC. I gave Randy a call on Saturday and asked if her husband, Rev. Jeff Whitman, was preaching anywhere in the area. If so, could I accompany them? I’d always wanted to hear Jeff preach and never had the chance. I was warmly welcomed to come with them. It was great to sit next to Randy on a Sunday morning and see this other side of her life.
First Congregational is located right next to Washington University in a very old upscale area. The church is very traditional, kind of stunning actually, and large. I went to their website and found out they are an opening Affirming Congregation, meaning they welcome LGBTQ people. They have a rich history. The church was started as an intentionally abolitionist church in the mid-1800s. This church has been about social justice since its inception. I was also pleased to learn that the church grew by about 200 members since the arrival of their minister. I know of her through Faith Aloud (www.faithaloud.org). She is a strong ally and supporter. So, I knew I’d be in good company.
When I arrived, I learned that the previous Sunday had been her last Sunday. She was set to retire at the end of this year, but pushed up her retirement for health reasons. This was the first Sunday after her farewell service and Rev. Whitman was there as conference minister to help them begin next steps. My curiosity was high! I love this kind of stuff. A church in transition, especially a big transition like this, is an exciting place with exciting potential for ministry. The best and worst stuff in a congregation comes out when its in this kind of transition.
The liturgy was great. This church is about welcoming diversity and it shows in every word that is spoken. This is a God is love church, not a God is judge church. The kind of church where I would be welcome at the communion table, no questions asked. The choir was traditional, robed, and amazing. The organist stunning. The prayers beautiful. The hymns contemporary and gushing with that God is love stuff. All their hymns, even the contemporary ones, are played on the organ with great traditional flourish. What a fascinating merging of styles and traditions.
Jeff preached well. You can tell that he is actively working to reinterpret a new kind of Christianity for a new time, a Christianity that is countercultural rather than reflecting the status quo, that takes nothing for granted. His central story was this: There is a statue in the middle of the church. It is revered and loved. But over time, the church grows old, a hole appears in the roof, and the roof started to cave in, falling in around the statue. People are scared. Is their church dying? Your last minister, he said, is that statue. You can’t worship the statue. The church is also not what you should be worshiping. You are now under construction. All the things we assumed as Christians when we grew up don’t hold anymore. The church we grew up in is dead. What will the Christian church be now? Who will you be now that your minister has left? Who will you become? And given who you are, and who you wish to become, who will you call as your next minister? This wasn’t just about the small question of who they would call as their next minister, but about how they would serve the God who welcomes all. How would they be the hands of the holy in a changing faith in this changing world?
I really appreciated hearing Jeff preach. Jeff is a social justice firebrand. We worked together to respond publicly to Todd Akin when he asserted that liberalism is a hatred of God. He was one of our strongest spokespersons and was interviewed by local papers, tv and radio stations. He is also a strong supporter of marriage equality, reproductive justice, and economic justice. He’s a powerful ally and religious progressive and I value him tremendously. I’m glad he’s with us here in Missouri.