Monday, June 19, 2006

Seeds Emerging

And then there are those churches where they play the Flaming Lips.

That's right, folks, the Curious Pilgrim is back. I decided not to venture too far, and hiked over to Fremont to check out Church of the Apostles or COTA, as it's known on the street. I was met with tea, conversation and hip background music.

COTA is what's called an emergent church, which means it is part of a contemporary movement to reinvigorate Christianity. For one thing emergent churches reclaim old buildings, whether those are abandoned theatres or other churches that have gone silent. They strive towards four main tenents: authenticity, mission living, narrative theology and Christ-likeness. The congregation seemed, from what I could see, to be living those out--invigorated themselves, welcoming and eager to participate in the rituals of the service.

Tim, who was the greeter at the door, said his Catholic-raised friends call COTA's brand of religion "church-lite". I can see their point. However, stacked against the practices of the more traditional mainline denominations I have visited, I'd say it's more like "church-organic", in that other section of your local supermarket. Their method is notably inherited from Lutheran and Episcopalean structures, but it has been sown throughout with new life.

For instance this idea of "authenticity". I planted a seed at church. As an optional, experiential segment of the worship proper there was an agricultuaral meditation station along with a discussion circle and journals available for prayerful etching. I really have never seen this before. But this was heavily tangible experience. Interaction on an intellectual level with peers and pastor was available and encouraged. I felt, and it was visceral, that I was making this journey not just alongside but joined with the other people in the building.

Just before we began I was sharing pleasantries with a guy in a Thundercats shirt--recently graduated, readying himself to study Philosophy and Theology at Princeton. Then he rises and takes his place with the band. I must have met the majority of the congregation one way or another--and it was not much smaller than the others I have visited. But there was a potent unity at COTA.

The discussion was centered on "Modern Parables". I don't necessarily agree with much of what was said--particularly one comment about the importance of Christ's stories because they are about the land (implying that there is no possiblity of an urban parable or an industrial parable). But that's what we're looking for in a church, capital C, right? A polyphony of beliefs that are interconnected and not mutually exclusive. Here, in the midst of a Sunday service, were folks chatting about whether contemporary moral tales exist or whether there is still relevance to be gained from Christ's. Even in this stationary moment I caught glimpses of the possibility of "mission living" in this community.

And the mass parts were there--the "Holy, Holy", the "Amen", the Eucharist. These were presented through digital music. The gospel was "read" by way of a video capturing the growth of a mustard seed (an example of "narrative theology", stressing the story and not necessarily any interpretation). These emergent churches have a strong allegiance to multimedia. They managed to respect the formality and process of the traditional system while infusing the service with much more to be felt, to be said, to be shared.

Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah. The pastor alluded to the "Yeah, Yeah Song" in her sermon. And then they played it as our recessional. Yeah. Peace be with you COTA. Rock on, and your mustard seeds too.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


I had to engage my spiritual questions outside of church walls today. I'll be back again next week with more commentary.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Do the Disciple!

If you're going to have a service, you might as well have dancing. That's what I say! And boy, can the Disciples of Christ at University Christian Church move. And they are not necessarily youngsters, either. This past Sunday happened to coincide with their 50+ Years of Membership celebration. There were folks present who have been attending since the 30s! There were, I'd say, maybe a handful of people there under 40, not including the kids--more on them later.

A striking fact, when one considers the politics of their congregation. When you visit the website you read messages about world crises and pressing social concerns. No fire and brimstone in this religious platform. And yet the veneer when you walk into the building suggests sturdy tradition and dependable quietude, not anything vibrant. That's all washed away when the spotlight hits the purple-wearing choir and the booming bass drum starts a'pounding. The archane melodies and conspicuously triumphant air of the service comingle unexpectedly with this focus on progressive ideas. All the talk was of inclusion and difference--about as postmodern as a Christological message can get.

This brings me back to the children. This was "box Sunday" (in addition to the afforementioned celebration as well as being Pentecost!). Apparently a box is given to one of the kids at the previous box Sunday and during the interim she can fill that box with whatever she chooses. The pastor, Sandy (who bears comment), must pull out the item and use it as basis for a short lesson. Sean (sp) stuffed a lion in the vessel. What did Sandy accomplish with that? She spoke of the diversity of God's creation--lions being special in their difference from tigers, to each its own importance.

Of course, these themes are suggested by Pentecost (when those tongues of fire descended and the apostles first spoke in heretofore unknown languages), however they felt deeply integral to the ongoing growth of this body. The Disciples of Christ website lists five practices commonly associated with their denomination:

* Open Communion. The Lord’s Supper, or Communion is celebrated in weekly worship. It is open to all who believe in Jesus Christ.
* Freedom of belief. Disciples are called together around one essential of faith: belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Persons are free to follow their consciences guided by the Bible, the Holy Spirit study and prayer, and are expected to extend that freedom to others.
* Baptism by immersion. In baptism the old self-centered life is set aside, and a new life of trust in God begins. Although Disciples practice baptism by immersion, other baptism traditions are honored.
* Belief in the oneness of the church. All Christians are called to be one in Christ and to seek opportunities for common witness and service.
* The ministry of believers. Both ministers and lay persons lead in worship, service and spiritual growth.

My impression, upheld by these five pillars, is that this church strives not for a unified system of dogma, but a community that draws its various beliefs together holistically. As is often the case I was invited to coffee hour afterward, and for the first time was insistently approached about who I am and where I hail from (physically and religiously). My huge Cornel West tome was excitedly welcomed, and the revelation that I grew up a Catholic seemed, if anything, appropriate and appreciated. Bunny, who was sweet and barely able to steady herself for a conversation with me, said she was brought into Christian Scientism at two years of age and went through a panoply of churches before settling at University Christian in 1956. These people encouraged me to check out their bookgroup, which is open to anyone (even agnostics) and reads anything from Buddhist texts to--as was suggested--Cornel West. For the first time I had an inkling--just slight--of belonging.

And then there was the dancing! Plus the sharing of joys or concerns. People stood up in their pews and talked to us all. Sandy was vibrant and gave a poetic sermon that stressed the need for passion in a church. She had big hair! Church should not be safe or comfortable, she boldly declared. It should be loud and challenging. It should be a source of life. Sounds alright, eh? She did not--nor did the service, if I recall accurately--mention the devil once. I will think of you fondly, Bunny, and Pete the metal-worker and you, the woman who couldn't remember my name and now whose name I can't remember. I was so comfortable that I missed my bus.