St. Paul's Lutheran does atmosphere well. It's a lovely little chapel with whitewashed walls, a simple, yet elegantly traditional altar, and gorgeous stained glass windows. Again, since it was Epiphany Sunday, the Christmas decorations were still up. For those of you who aren't familiar with Epiphany, in churches with a strong liturgical background, the year is divided up into seasons. 4 weeks before Christmas is a season called Advent. This is sort of the pre-Christmas season and is a season focused on hope. December 25th is Christmas Day which begins the 12 days of Christmas. These end on January 5th in a celebration called the 12th Night. The day after is the Feast of Epiphany which celebrates either the Wise Men finding the Christ Child or the Baptism of Jesus. In most churches, the Sunday after Epiphany is the day that they celebrate Epiphany. Because of it's heavy ties to Christmas, most churches leave up the Christmas decorations until Epiphany Sunday. St. Paul's is no exception.
The service was much what I thought it was going to be, catholic ceremony with a strong Protestant lean to it. For example, there was no procession with candles and a cross from the back of the church to the front. The pastor and those assisting him at the altar just sort of came out. The pastor gave a little story about harsh winters he had experienced and how they related to the winters here before beginning the service. There was far more emphasis on hymns and the scripture readings than I'm used to in Catholic services. Fitting since Martin Luther heavily emphasized the Bible over the pomp and ceremony of the Catholic Church.
The communion portion of the service was quite beautiful, and quite short. I liked how short it was and that I wasn't on my knees. Anyone who has been Catholic knows that the long winded communion prayers and kneeling uncomfortably in the pews makes for some excruciating endurance at Mass. My only real complaint was the music got a bit monotonous for my tastes.
The second we walked in, a lovely woman came up and introduced herself, asked if we were visiting for the first time, then proceeded to take us into the sanctuary, tell us about the stained glass windows inside, introduce us to the usher, and made me feel quite welcome. Aside from her and the usher, nobody really came and talked to us. However, I didn't feel like anyone looked at us like we were intruding. In fact, I felt quite the opposite. There was a warm and loving atmosphere to the whole thing. One of the ushers even waved us up to go to communion when it was time. I respectfully declined the offer, but I liked that she did extend it to us. In general, they seemed like very kind people who genuinely believed in their church and message.
Here's where the church sort of lost me. The message was about baptism. The pastor mostly talked about the destructive powers of water. He related it to how the waters of baptism kill the sinful man within us and regenerate us in Christ's grace. Now, I'm not going to go into a discussion on how I feel about baptism, because I'm sure many of you can figure that out. But what did get me was how he talked about the Noah story and the Exodus story. He talked about God destroying the entire earth because they were wicked and then talked about God sending the plagues on Egypt, particularly the plague that killed all the firstborn in Egypt.
Here is one of my major problems with Christianity, you have a religion which claims to be about peace, hope, forgiveness, and love with a God who is supposedly loving, the scriptures even talk about God being love. Yet you have that same God consistently orders the murder and destruction of entire civilizations and personally participates in the ruin of many of them often for finite crimes. I'm aware of the argument that this God is supposedly perfectly just as well, but is it just to murder thousands of children for crimes their parents committed (or in many cases crimes their civil leaders ONLY committed). But what I find more disturbing is how many churches or people speaking on these topics will completely gloss over this fact. Often even celebrate it as a triumph of God's power. I just don't understand how you can gloss over or celebrate the destruction of thousands of people, many of them innocent of crimes, and not question it. Not have it bother you at your core.
To be fair, I do know Christians who confront this sort of thing head on, but in my experience, I feel that a huge problem with Christianity today is that the majority of American Christians don't want to deal with any of the uncomfortable aspects of their faith, and just want the religious experience on Sunday without having to delve too deeply into the actual meaning and consequences of their beliefs. They want easily digestible pieces of the Gospel to take with them throughout the week to uplift them and nothing more.
Overall, I rather enjoyed my time at St. Paul's. It was quite a beautiful service. It was very peaceful and loving with a congregation that obviously loved their tradition and heritage. The Lutheran service was a brilliant mixture of its catholic and evangelical traditions, both of which I felt were equally important to their identity. I would go back again just to experience the peace and joy in the congregation.