Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Returning to see the Latter-day Saints

This week, I'm returning to the church of my childhood, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called the LDS Church or the Mormon Church. For those of you who don't know me and are just now reading my blog, I was raised LDS but left when I was a teenager. More on that later in this blog.

I am assuming many reading this blog are familiar with the LDS Church, but for those of you who aren't familiar, I will give a rundown.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has its roots in New York. A young man in 1830 named Joseph Smith Jr. founded a new religion called the Church of Christ. He claimed that he had received revelations from God to restore the primitive Christian Church that Jesus had founded but had been corrupted over the years by the teachings and ways of mankind. Over the next decade the Mormons, as they came to be called, were pushed from New York to Ohio, Missouri, and finally to Illinois.

While in Illinois, a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor published unflattering things about Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith had the newspaper shut down and destroyed. Joseph Smith was arrested for this and while in prison he was assassinated.

After the death of Joseph Smith, a large number of the Mormons followed a man they believed to be the successor to Joseph Smith, a man named Brigham Young, to the Salt Lake Valley where they established a territory called Deseret which later became the State of Utah.

Since then, the Church has grown to be a worldwide church boasting nearly 15 million members. The Church is well known in the world for its widespread missionary campaign, it's history with polygamy (more on that later), and being the faith of 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Similarities between the LDS Church and Mainstream Christianity:
  • They believe Jesus Christ was the Messiah and atoned for mankind's sins.
  • They believe in the Old and New Testaments as inspired scripture for the teaching and betterment of mankind. Mormons use the King James Bible only.
  • They practice baptism which is done by full immersion in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
  • They believe in the inevitable Second Coming of Jesus.
  • They hold weekly meetings on Sunday in simple buildings called meeting houses which are open to the public.
  • They practice a form of communion called the Sacrament. They don't believe in any literal presence of Jesus in the Sacrament, but rather it is a symbol of remembering his death and resurrection, much like Baptists. For the Sacrament, Mormons typically use sliced, white bread and water.
  • They hold to a strict moral code like many Christians. This includes, no sex before marriage, no pornography, no masturbation, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, not using profanity, and not getting tattoos or body piercings.
  • Mormons have a very strong emphasis on family and family values. Like many Christians, the family is placed at the heart of their faith.
Differences between the LDS Church and Mainstream Christianity:
  • Mormons do not believe in the Trinity, one God in three persons, but instead believe the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate and distinct beings each being gods themselves.
  • God has a body of flesh and bone.
  • In addition to the Bible, Mormons also have three additional books they consider scripture
    1. The Book of Mormon. This is the book Joseph Smith claimed to have translated from golden plates he found on a hillside. This book is said to be a record of ancient Jews living in America in ancient times who are the ancestors of Native Americans today. This book contains many teachings of the LDS Church and has what they believe is a record of Jesus visiting the Americas after his resurrection.
    2. The Doctrine and Covenants. This book consists of records of the early days of the Mormon Church written by Joseph Smith or other key figures of the early Mormon movement. The majority of Church doctrines can be found in this book.
    3. The Pearl of Great Price. This book contains several additional writing of Joseph Smith.
  • They have a very different view of the afterlife than any other Christian denomination. After death, it is believed spirits go to the Spirit World which is either a paradise or prison for the spirits there. Then after the Last Judgment, humanity will be divided up and go to one of four places:
    1. The Celestial Kingdom, a kingdom ruled by the Father and filled with infinite glory
    2. The Telestial Kingdom, a kingdom ruled by the Son and filled also with glory, but diminished from that of the first kingdom.
    3. The Terrestrial Kingdom, a kingdom ruled by the Holy Ghost and filled with glory, but diminished from that of the first two kingdoms.
    4. Outer Darkness, a realm of eternal torment and pain reserved for the Devil and his angels, and those who denied the Holy Ghost. It's nearly impossible for living people to obtain this fate according to Mormon teachings.
  • They believe in modern day prophets which they believe speak directly to mankind for God.
  • They believe that those who obtain the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom will go on to become gods themselves of their own worlds.
  • They believe that families that are sealed together and live righteously will be together for all eternity.
  • They have temples which are open every day but Sunday. These temples are for members only and include three main ceremonies performed by worthy Mormons:
    1. Baptisms for the dead. Mormons practice proxy baptisms for those who died without being baptized into the Church. Mormons believe that those who have died can accept this baptism and change the fate of their souls in the afterlife.
    2. The Endowment Ceremony. In this ceremony, Mormons believe they are given special instruction and endowed with special blessings and covenants with God. It is considered one of the most sacred rites on Earth and necessary for the highest degree of glory.
    3. Temple marriage or Sealing. It is believed that only marriages performed in the temple are eternal. Couples who are worthy are married in a special ceremony in the temple for this life and all eternity.
  • The Church once practiced polygamy and was fiercely proud of it, however, in 1890, with much pressure on them from the federal government, a revelation was said to have been given to the President of the Church banning the practice of polygamy. Several sects, such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), have broken away due to this teaching and continue practicing polygamy. The Church is fiercely against polygamy today and this is a sore spot for many in the Church. Mormons, however, do believe that men can be sealed to more than one wife in the afterlife, but on Earth he can only have one at a time.
  • In addition to not indulging in alcohol and the like mentioned above, Mormons are also prohibited from drinking coffee and tea, and from partaking in any form of tobacco.
  • They believe we all lived before our lives here on Earth as spirit children in the presence of the Father. 
I am going to a special service held every month called Fast and Testimony Meeting. This is like a normal weekly meeting with the Sacrament, but instead of talks, members get up and bear their testimony of the Church, declaring publicly that they know it is true and explaining why or giving a story that reinforced their testimony. The 'fast' portion comes from the fact that on the first Sunday of the month, Mormons are supposed to fast from the night before until dinner time Sunday evening and give the money they would have spent on food to the Church for those in need.

I have to now admit that I left the Church in my mind when I was 17 and publicly left when I was 18. So, to reveal my age, this May will be the 10 year anniversary of me leaving the Church publicly. In my 10 years outside the Church, I have only entered an LDS church three times, once for my sister's baptism, once for my nephew's baby blessing, and once for my friend's wedding. Aside from that, I've avoided going because I have a lot of emotional baggage with the Church. Being around all things Mormon actually stirs up a lot of unresolved issues that I have with the Church. It brings up years where I felt I was systematically lied to from the highest levels; years of shame and guilt that they made me feel; all the times I cried to God for help or to be someone else, but he never came; all the times I asked questions and was turned away; all the feelings that I was a hypocrite and a monster; and ultimately, the feelings of betrayal that I experienced by people who were very close to me when I left.

I am going to try as hard as I can to remain objective in this week's blog. I am going to treat this service like any other service I go to and keep my own personal feelings out of it. The same rules that applied to other churches apply to this one. I will not make a scene, and I will be fair and simply report on my experience in this blog. This also means that I will not cater to my Mormon friends and family and just give them a good rating so that I don't step on toes. This service is to be just like any other one. Therefore the good, the bad, and the ugly of the service are all equally fair game, though I will not let my own bias get in the way.

The place I have chosen to attend should give me one of the most beautiful experiences I could have in a Mormon service. We are going to go to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, which is in Temple Square, the epicenter of the Church. I'm looking forward to seeing what it's like there, and hopefully this experience is a pleasant one for me.

Until I talk to you next, peace be with you.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Namu Amida Butsu, Hail to the Infinite Light, the Amida Buddha!

This week I went to the Japanese Buddhist Church here in Ogden. Was it the peace inducing experience I thought it would be?


The temple is technically not in Ogden, but in Harrisville a little city just North-West of Ogden. The area isn't particularly a pretty area of town. It's most noted for it's Walmart and the adjoining strip mall. So, when you come upon this rather eastern style building, you take notice immediately. Around the perimeter of the property is a wrought iron gate The gardens are beautiful surrounding the building, I can only imagine what they look like in Spring and Summer.

When you walk in through the main door, there is an image of the Wheel of Dharma, an eight-spoke wheel that represents the Eightfold Path to Nirvana, hanging over the doorway.

There's nothing really remarkable about the building when you first walk in. the walls are white and fairly plain. There are a few offices. The only thing that would really give you any indication of being in a Buddhist temple are displays like this one:

However, the atmosphere changes entirely when you enter the sanctuary. The room looks much more Eastern in design, there are windows covered in red curtains, pews (really Western actually), the room is filled with the perfume of spicy incense, and then you see the altar.

The altar is very traditional looking and set upon a stage. There is a main altar piece and two smaller altars on either side of it.

The one to the right of the altar is of the monk who founded this sect of Buddhism. His name was Shinran and he took a form of Buddhism inherited by the Japanese from the Chinese and brought it to the lay folk, at the time, Buddhism was something for the upper crest of society, not something for the common lower casts.

If you'll notice in the foreground, there is a singing bowl, which they did use in this service. If you want to know a little more about those, check out my Unitarian Universalist blog. The image of Shinran is in the background with the lamps and flowers surrounding him.

On the other side is another important figure of this tradition. For the life of me, I cannot remember his name, but he was explained to me as a man who took the highly learned teachings of Shinran and simplified them so that the laity could follow his teachings more easily, therefore bringing Buddhism even more to the masses.

The high altar is dedicated to the Amida Buddha I mentioned in my pre-service blog. This was explained to me as not a historical person, but as the teachings of the Buddha made manifest. In traditional depictions, it was a scroll in the center of the altar, but over time, with the Western influence of seeing God as a man, the image has taken the form of a man. This image is in the center of this altar, and is hidden by golden medallions. If you look closely, you can see the image of the man standing, though not really clearly in this picture.

On the altar are candles (fake ones), which symbolize eternal light, an offering of rice and fruit, flowers which represent impermanence as flowers begin to die as they start to bloom, and in front is a temporary altar set up with pictures of the pets of loved ones. (More on that in the service section.)

On the ground level directly in front of the altar was a lovely incense burner. The burner had a dragon on either side, one with an opened mouth and one with a closed mouth. The opened mouthed one represented life and the closed mouth one represented death. Our birth has already happened to us, and our death is guaranteed to us. Between the two is a bowl that you place the incense in and the incense waft between the two with highs and lows symbolizing our life, the only thing we have to worry about as our birth and death are already given.

The atmosphere here was spectacular. I felt immediately like I was in a space that was other to my day to day life, and I really love when that happens.

The People:

The people were wonderful. When we first arrived, somebody asked if we were visitors. They found a lovely woman who gave us a rundown of what would happen during the service and then gave us a tour of the sanctuary and explained everything in it.

After the service, they had a reception for the new associate ministers. Everyone was very kind and warm at the reception. The congregation was a mix of many types of people, Japanese, American, a few others as well. We shared what we were doing with a few of them and they were all very intrigued by the idea. I even gave the blog address to the nice lady who gave us the tour of the sanctuary. If you're reading this, for the life of me I cannot remember your name, but I want to say thank you for everything today. One man I met told me that he and his wife had been following my blog and knew we were coming. That was kind of surreal to me knowing that others knew we were coming to their church.

The reception had a lot of traditional Western foods like meatballs, cheese and crackers, lemon bars, etc. but also a few Japanese pastries. One was a pancake sort of turnover stuffed with a sweet black bean paste. There was also a tea that was traditional green tea mixed with brown rice. I have to say that both the pancake with the bean paste and the tea are two things that I feel have been missing from my life way too long and I feel cheated not having had these before.

The Service:

The service was short and sweet. It started with someone chiming a gong to summon everyone to worship, much like church bells in the West. The service began with those who had lost a loved one in the month of February getting up and offering incense in the bowl shown earlier.

Next there was a chant done in Japanese. I understood nothing of this chant, but it really calmed me and did bring a sense of peace. The chant was led by the minister and punctuated periodically by chiming the singing bowl.

After the chant, there was a recitation of a verse called The Golden Chain which talked about having an attitude filled with pure and lovely thoughts and pure and lovely actions. Then we sang a Japanese hymn, which again, was lovely but I didn't understand any of it.

The minister then got up and gave his sermon. See the "Message" portion below for that.

Afterward, everybody got up and offered some incense (myself included) in the incense burner and then the service was over. The whole thing took about a half hour to forty minutes to complete. It was quite lovely and I have nothing negative to say about it at all.

The Message:

The sermon was about loss and death. He explained that today was Nirvana Day and that it celebrated the death of Buddha, but Buddha died 2600 years ago and that his death doesn't have much impact on us today. But today they were memorializing our pets which had passed away. And we are often devastated by the loss of our pets. Indeed our pets are usually the first experience we have with death and loss as a child.

He then played a gorgeous piece of music called Galloping Horses. He then related it to a Mongolian legend of a young man who had a white horse which he loved and shared a close bond. One day, a town governor, took the horse from the boy and kicked the boy out of town. The horse would not behave with the governor, so the horse was ordered to be killed. But the horse ran away and arrows were shot into it as it ran away. Somehow the horse made it back to the boy's home. The boy and his mother tried to save the horse, but his wounds were too great and he died. The boy was devastated and mourned his horse.

That night, the horse appeared in the boy's dream and told him not to grieve him, for all things are impermanent. Instead, the boy should take his body and make use of it. So the boy crafted a fiddle from the horse and the fiddle was topped with the carving of a horse head. That day forward the boy went along the countryside playing upon this fiddle. For though the horse had tragically been taken from him, he would live on through the music that touched those who heard it. And to this day, the horse-head fiddle is the national instrument of Mongolia.

The minister then said that when a loved one dies, our relationship with them does not die, it is only transformed. We still hear them in our head talking to us, we still feel their love in our hearts. Death is a part of life and a lesson we must learn, for all things are impermanent.

I loved this message, and no matter what your beliefs or where you are in life, this is a very true message. I feel that we often try to ignore death in our culture, but that does nothing to help us. Instead, we must confront it, better yet, we should embrace it. Our deaths are inevitable as are the deaths of all our family and friends.

Overall Experience:

This was an amazing service and an amazing community. I loved this experience so much. It filled me with peace and a sense of belonging I haven't felt many other places. I will definitely be back sometime soon to this place, though I'm not sure when because of this blog.

Additional Comments:

I am having so much fun doing this. Also, my friend Austin has been accompanying me to all but one of these. He's also blogging about the experiences he's having. There's overlap in our posts, but he does have a slightly different approach to things. You can check out his blog here:

I know I said I might be making a video blog last week, but I never got around to it. I will definitely be making one this week, it might even be up tonight. I have many things to talk about, so tune in for that.

Join me next week as I return to where it all began for me: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church).

Until I speak with you next, peace be with you.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Off to see the Pure Lands of the Buddha

This week is going to be quite different from the previous weeks. Up until now, all the faiths I had been to have been Christian in one form or another with the exception of the Unitarian Universalists, who, though not a Christian religion, still have their roots in the Christian tradition. But this week, I am going to something completely different, the Ogden Buddhist Church.

Buddhism is a commonly practiced religion, in fact, it's the fourth largest religion in the world following Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. It's the religion of the Dalai Lama (though he's Tibetan Buddhist and I am going to a different sect than his this Sunday), a number of celebrities, and possibly many people you know. Yet for how common and exposed the religion is, it's not widely understood.

If you ask most Americans about Buddhism, a few images come to mind, Zen, monks in burgundy or saffron robes, statues of a serene man in lotus position or a jolly fat man laughing. They may know of the Dalai Lama or that it's a path to enlightenment, but that's often it.

Here's a quick list of some key points about Buddhism:
  • Buddhism was founded by a man named Siddhartha Gautama in India in the fifth to sixth century B.C.E. (B.C.). Siddhartha was a noble man who upon seeing the suffering outside the palace decided he wanted to find a way to end suffering. He tried living an extreme lifestyle as a monk in the Hindu monasteries and seeking it elsewhere. But it was his discovery of the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path which led him to enlightenment. He became the Buddha after that, which means 'the Enlightened One."
  • The Four Noble Truths are as follows:
    1. The truth that suffering exists.
    2. The truth that suffering has a cause, it is craving and attachment.
    3. The truth that suffering can end.
    4. The truth that there is a path out of suffering, the Eightfold Path.
  • Buddhists believe in the Eightfold Path, which is a path leading to enlightenment. The Eightfold path is as follows:
    1. Right view - perceiving the reality of ourselves and how we relate to the world around us.
    2. Right intention - that your intention should be directed to towards enlightenment.
    3. Right speech - taking care that your words do not harm either yourself or others.
    4. Right action - taking care that your actions do not harm either yourself or others.
    5. Right livelihood - taking care your life and life's work cultivate wholesomeness and good.
    6. Right effort - that your passions should be directed towards enlightenment and the betterment of our world.
    7. Right mindedness - your mind should be disciplined to look past delusion and attachment.
    8. Right concentration - that you discipline yourself to perceive reality as it is.
  • Buddhists' ultimate goal is a state called Nirvana. Westerners often look at Nirvana as Buddhist Heaven, but that's not how they would see it. It is a state of being that can exist both in this life and an afterlife if one believes one exists.
  • Buddhists believe in reincarnation. This belief can range from the full on belief in the transmigration of souls from one body to another, or just the belief that everything cycles in this universe, matter, energy, etc.
  • Buddhism itself has no central deity, but merely is the pursuit of enlightenment. Therefore, Buddhists may not believe in gods or they may have one or many different gods they worship. As such, there are many branches of Buddhism with rich and complex pantheons.
  • Buddhism doesn't teach that it is the exclusive truth. They believe there are many paths to enlightenment and that theirs is just one that may work.
  • Buddhists do not worship Buddha. Buddha insisted he was just a man through his entire life.
  • There are many sects and traditions of Buddhism based on nationality, culture, beliefs, and practices. Some examples are Theravada, Mahayana, Chan, Zen, Tibetan, etc.
The sect of Buddhism I will be visiting this Sunday is called Jodo Shinshu. They are a branch of what is called Pure Land Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism is a form of Buddhism with some unique traits that include:
  • Devotion to the Amida Buddha (Amitabha) who is the Buddha of Infinite Light. The Amida Buddha is one of many buddhas. In many sects of Buddhism there are many buddhas as the term simply means one who is enlightened. These buddhas can be anything from examples to live your life by to something akin to gods or saints to whom prayers can be offered.
  • Belief that the ability of humanity to follow the teachings of Buddha and draw closer to enlightenment deteriorates through the generations. Thus they turn to the Amida Buddha to deliver them.
  • If you trust in the Amida Buddha, he will deliver you to the Pure Land. The Pure Land is a haven where one may more easily achieve enlightenment (viewed metaphorically though I do believe there's a literal dimension to this too among some believers.)
I'm quite excited to see this service. They're celebrating Nirvana Day this Sunday which celebrates the death of Buddha and his complete entering into Nirvana. I expect lots of chanting and rich symbolism. I'm also excited to see pets get blessed as their website's calendar says they will be doing.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

All you need is love

This week, I attended the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden (UUCO from hereon out). So what was my time like at the church of the flaming chalice?


The UUCO is quite a lovely church building. In the parking lot, there is this lovely sign that I just had to snap a picture of:

If you can't read it, it says "Standing on the Side of Love."

 Inside, the building that has a feeling of a cozy log cabin. When you enter the sanctuary, there's just this warmth that you feel from the colors and the people.

View from the back of the church.

View from the front of the church.

Along the sides of the wall are banners representing different faith traditions from around the world. Here are three of the banners representing front to back: Secular Humanism; the Eight Spoke Wheel of Buddhism; and the flaming chalice, the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist tradition.

I also enjoyed this little quilted church banner that welcomes you into the chapel:

Overall, it's a very homey and welcoming environment.

The People:

The people at UUCO are very kind and very inviting. When the minister gave her announcements she said something to the effect of, no matter who you are, your prison record, your gender idenity, your sexual orientation, income level, whether you have a PhD or didn't graduate high school, your faith background, you are welcome here.

And I definitely get that impression. People in the church will come up to you and ask you about yourself and your background. They truly don't seem at all judgmental about where you come from or what you believe. The people there were very kind to us, and in particular, the minister went out of her way to be very friendly and welcoming.

The Service:

The service was lovely. The music at the beginning was gorgeous, I don't remember the song, but the choir sang it beautifully. Then they sounded a singing bowl. For those of you unfamiliar with a singing bowl, they are these instruments, you tap on the side of them then run the mallet along the edge and it creates this gorgeous sound which resonates through the air for nearly a minute creating a sense of calm. Theirs is a lovely white one made of glass, I believe. Perhaps it is some other material.

After the singing bowl, the minister read a short poem about love and then they lit the chalice. The flaming chalice is the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist faith and represents the warmth of love, the light of truth, and the energy of action. This congregation has a child come up and light the chalice. Here is the chalice while unlit:

After they lit the chalice, we all sang a hymn entitled, "Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire." After the hymn, there was a responsive reading which I didn't really get the chance to listen to because I was fumbling through the book trying to find it, so I feel like I missed out on that part.

After the responsive reading, the minister gave a prayer on behalf of the community. The prayer was for many things including comfort to those in need, healing for members of the congregation suffering from ailments, an end to war, an end to suffering, care for the earth, and celebrations that were being had that week.

After the prayer was a reading from 1 Corinthians chapter 13. I have a very complicated view of the Bible. Having read the book cover to cover twice and read many sections of it over and over, the book as a whole repulses me and I do not see it as a holy text, or even a good book to base your life around in the modern world. However, withing pages of hard to to believe stories, strange wisdom sayings, and horrific tales, there are beautiful pearls of wisdom, the pearls that believers cling to. In many cases, these beautiful passages from the Bible are all that a believer knows, and this one is, in my opinion the most beautiful part of the whole Bible:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part,10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhoodbehind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

After the reading, there was a video which featured a bunch of people singing a song called "Life is Better with You." The video featured diverse couples of every age, background, and sexual orientation. It was quite beautiful.

After the video, the minister gave a sermon, more details on that below, and this was followed by the gathering of the offering. That involved them passing around the collection plate. As they passed it around, the pianist played the song "Same Love" by Macklemore. While they were doing that, you could go and light a candle just like in a Catholic church.

You could also place a stone into a bowl of water as a symbolic gesture of releasing your burdens.

After that, we sang a song called "Standing on the Side of Love." The song had a very good message of loving without restraint and was quite upbeat. Afterward, the minister gave some closing remarks before we sang the song again, this time clapping along to it.

Overall, a very lovely service with tons of great music. I recommend a Unitarian Universalist service for the uplifting and positive feeling you get from it.

The Message:

The sermon was entitled, "What is Love?" She began her sermon by talking about the four types of love in Greek: eros, storge, philia, and agape, explaining the differences. She then talked about how we shouldn't be afraid to love ourselves with these four loves. Then she asked if something so complex as love could be divided into categories easily.

I am posting a link to the blog where her sermons are kept so that you can go and read it yourself if you like, but here are some highlights I loved:

Love is an outlaw, and we can only sign on as its accomplice.

Her very touching story about her wedding day. After being engaged to her now wife for 39 years, they were finally able to get married recently. She recalled what she had written in her wedding vows and also the toast her daughter had given.

A quote that really stuck with me was, "If somone truly loves you, it is a miracle."

And finally, love is what matters most in life. And like all things that matter, love takes work.

She then had us read together the words from 1 John 4 where it famously talks about God being love and if you do not love you do not know God.

Here is the minister's blog:

Overall Experience:

This church is amazing. The love and sense of community you feel in it is almost tangible. I would definitely return time and time again to UUCO. They approach religion and faith not with simple dogmatic answers that are beyond question, nor with the arrogance of certainty, but with humility and acknowledgment that there are diverse beliefs out there. Since their focus is not on doctrine and easy answers, their church is instead focused on the community and making this life better for all. I completely support this sort of religion and spirituality.

The Unitarian Universalists are a wonderful group to see out there in the modern world filled with pessimism and a future that seems hopeless at times.

Additional comments:

This next week I may do another video blog about how things have been since my last video. If so, that will be up in a day or two. I'm thinking that halfway through the week each week I might do a video explaining not just the experience, but also my religious background. Let me know what you guys think.

Next week will be a fun week. Next Sunday I am attending the Japanese Buddhist Church in Ogden. It is Nirvana Day, which is going to include a blessing of pets. I think it should be fun.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Off to light the chalice

This week I will be heading to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, a church that many of you may not be very familiar with, but has a long and interesting history and a unique modern expression.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden is part of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Unitarian Universalist Association is an organization founded in 1961 which is a merger of two previous groups, the American Unitarian Association, and the Universalist Church of America. The two churches are groups that have different historical origins, but found that they had grown more alike over the years and merged as one group.

Historically, Unitarians were Christians that rejected the Trinity (one God in three persons), instead affirming instead that God was a unity (one person), hence Unitarianism.

Historically, Universalists were Christians who rejected the concept of Hell saying that any God who was all loving could not condemn any part of his creation to Hell fire for all eternity and that all people would eventually be saved.

Many of America's founding fathers were either Unitarians or Universalists, as have been many important writers, politicians, artists, and philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Over time, both groups slowly moved away from a Christian only umbrella and began welcoming those of differing faiths and beliefs into their congregations.

Today the Unitarian Universalist Association is a diverse religion welcoming members of all faiths and backgrounds to join with them in worship and community. Membership of the Unitarian Universalists include: Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, Secular Humanists, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, those who refuse to label themselves, and more. The group prides itself on not being a dogma based faith, but instead one focused on spirituality, community service, and fellowship.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden is quite heavily involved in the local community. They support a program called OUTreach which is a safe haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered teens and their allies to meet and have a safe community free of judgment. They are also heavily involved with many local social issues, such as human rights protests and environmental protection.

I have attended this congregation on and off several times throughout the years. They are an interesting and diverse group. I can't wait to report back the findings of this Sunday.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Icons, incense, chanting, and candles

I just got back from the Greek Orthodox service at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. Again, I mentioned I used to attend this church long ago. So, did the Greek Church stir up the same sort of nostalgia and inspiration that the Catholic Church did in me?


The Orthodox do atmosphere as well as the Catholics. I have to say that I'm partial to the look of many Catholic churches vs. many Orthodox churches, but Orthodox churches are beautiful and it's only a personal preference of mine.

The outside of Holy Transfiguration Church is nothing to really write home about. On the outside you'd never guess the splendors that await you inside. The outside I've always referred to as the Greeks present the 1970's.

However, once you get inside, you're transported to another time and another world. The whole church is filled with the perfume of sweet incense. There is chanting (granted from a tone deaf choir, but chanting nonetheless) and bells jingling, you light a bee's wax candle and place it into sand, kiss icons, and feel as though you have stepped out of the Utah and out of the United States.

Behind this wall of icons (sacred paintings that are not intended to be realistic but depict spiritual realities to their faithful) is the high altar. I wish I could have gotten a picture of that, because it's beautiful, but I didn't want to photograph the service and the doors in the center are closed off when services are not in progress.

This icon hangs from the center of the ceiling. It is known as Christ the Pantokrator (Christ the Ruler of All). It represents Christ looking down upon the Earth from his throne in Heaven with the Book of Life in his hand blessing the whole Earth.

These are known as the Royal Doors. The icon in the center slides to the side like a sliding door. It depicts Christ as the High Priest. Below it are two doors that have the four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Directly behind these doors is the high altar of the church, considered to be the most holy place in the church.

A couple more icons. The top one is the event for which the church is named for, the Transfiguration of Jesus. Couldn't get a great picture of it because everything is in the way. The one below is an icon depicting the Resurrection of Jesus. It depicts Jesus trampling down the doors of Hell and Death and raising Adam and Eve from their tombs.

One final note on atmosphere, I used to work for a stained glass studio. Long before I worked there, they did the stained glass windows for this church and I still think they're very beautiful.

If you follow the stained glass windows around the church, they actually depict the entire life of Christ.

The atmosphere is fantastic in an Orthodox church and I highly recommend checking one out for that reason alone.

The People:

The community at the Greek Orthodox Church in Ogden is amazing. That was always one of my favorite things about attending this church. Coffee hour afterwards was sometimes better than the service. Today was pretty plain compared to other coffee hours I've been to, just some doughnuts and Greek cookies, a Greek dessert I've always loved but can't remember the name of (pine nuts are actually good in dessert believe it or not), and some coffee.

Several people introduced themselves to me. I mentioned how I knew the old priest who used to serve there and his family and that was a good icebreaker. The current priest was very fun. He came over to the table and greeted us. Talked about how the coffee hour would be better with scotch and overall was just a hoot.

The Greek community of Ogden is a wonderful community. I miss them very much.

Side note, every September they hold a food festival with traditional Greek dancing. Check it out sometime if you're ever in Ogden at that time.

The Service:

I had forgotten this being away from the Church for such a long time. The Greek Orthodox liturgy is equal parts awe inspiring and boring. It is a beautiful service. In Ogden it's half in Greek and half in English and the whole thing is chanted. The service is essentially a dialogue between the priest and the congregation with the choir doing the responses for the congregation. It is breathtakingly beautiful and filled with rich imagery and chanting. Every single gesture is symbolic of something greater.

Yet, the service is insanely monotonous and repetitive. There are many points in the service where virtually the same prayer is repeated. The responses to the prayers are quite repetitive and the prayers go on in very long litanies. I realize this service built up over thousands of years, but there are times where all I do is focus on the pretty icons around me rather than what's going on because I have heard the same prayers just moments ago.

Overall, the service is very beautiful, but the repetitive nature of it drags it down a bit.

One thing I really do love is at the end everybody lines up and receives a piece of bread from the priest as a sign of fellowship. The bread is really good. It's leftovers that aren't consecrated during communion and baked fresh the night before by a member of the congregation.

The Message:

The Orthodox are not known for their long sermons. The sermon lasted literally like three minutes. The priest basically told the congregation that they should be reminded that human beings are small in relation to the grand scheme of things. In God's eyes we're tiny and we are insignificant in so many ways. But we are not all bad and we should approach God knowing we are sinners but there is good in us.

Not a bad message, keep in perspective that you're a good person, but you're not the center of the world and you have flaws.

Overall Experience:

I enjoyed the community and the sense of tradition that came along with it. But it wasn't as spectacular as I once remembered it to be. It is a beautiful church and a beautiful tradition, but it was never my home and in the end was never meant to be with me. I do still quite love the Orthodox Church and the Greek community of Ogden will always hold a very special place in my heart, but I don't know how long it will be before I go back.

Additional Comments:

This entire adventure is really giving me so much to think about. I am learning a lot about myself, my community, and my country from this as well as seeing a lot of diverse things I don't think I would otherwise see. I want to thank you all for your feedback so far. I want to hear more of your thoughts either in comments below, messages or comments on Facebook, or some other communication with me, because I want to know what you're learning, what questions you have, where you think I should go from here, etc.

Can't wait to hear from you.

Join me next week when I go and visit the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden.

Until then, peace be with you.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Going to see the oldest Christian church, the Eastern Orthodox Church

I hear two questions coming out of your mouth:
  1. Isn't the Catholic Church the oldest Christian church out there?
  2. Didn't you say you were going to go to the Greek Orthodox Church, not the Eastern Orthodox Church?
The answer to both of those is, yes.

1. The Catholic Church is the oldest continuously practiced Christian church. But so is the Eastern Orthodox Church, as is a collection of churches known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches. You see, these three bodies were originally one Church when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity and elevated the previously underground Christian Church to the level of a state religion. In 451 the Oriental Orthodox split from the main body of Christians. I could go into that topic, but there are no Oriental Orthodox Churches in Utah, so sadly, I'm not going to address them here.

However, the Christian Church continued as a unified body throughout the East and West of the Roman Empire. The two parts of the Empire developed different traditions, the West was Latin in language and culture, the East was Greek in language and culture.

The power in this church was vested in bishops. Five bishops were given a special title of "patriarch." These five patriarchs were, in order of importance, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. All were merely bishops with added titles due to their historic importance and a larger sphere of influence politically over matters of church and state.

In the West, the Bishop of Rome, commonly known as the Pope, was also the Patriarch of Rome. Over time he consolidated power in the West and became the most important political and religious figure claiming he was the successor to Peter the Apostle, therefore the most important bishop of all of them. The patriarchs in the East disagreed with this completely.

In 1054, the cultural and political differences between the two parts of the Church became too much for either side to handle and they excommunicated each other. Since that time, they have been two separate and distinct churches with differences in doctrine, practice, and governance. Neither is older than the other, nor did they start new churches, simply split an already existing church into two factions.

2. The Greek Orthodox Church is part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church is a union of national churches divided over cultural and national differences, but united in doctrine and discipline. These churches include, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church in America, the Latvian Orthodox Church, etc. Members of these churches use different languages and have different cultural traditions in their services, but they are all considered members of the same Church. A person who is Russian Orthodox can attend and fully participate at a Greek Orthodox church and vice versa with no issue.

So, here are some unique things about the Eastern Orthodox Church:

Differences between them and Catholics:
  • No single head of the Church, all bishops are seen as equal spiritually though some have more honorific titles and power.
  • They do not believe in Purgatory.
  • They do not believe in Original Sin (the belief that all mankind bears the original guilt of Adam) instead they believe that Adam's fall caused mankind to be inclined to a sinful nature, but that we aren't guilty of sin from the moment of our birth.
  • They believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, not from the Father and the Son. This probably means nothing to anyone reading this blog. Nonetheless, this was one of the big reasons the two churches split. Silly isn't it?
  • Their priests may be married and have families as may their deacons. Their bishops; however, are celibate.
  • They ordinarily baptize by immersion (this includes babies), though if the need arises, they will baptize by pouring water on the head like Catholics ordinarily do.
  • They use leavened bread and red wine in their liturgy. Catholics use unleavened bread and the wine used can be red or white as long as it is grape wine.
  • They don't use three dimensional art, instead they use two dimensional icons in their worship and this is a rich tradition with them.
  • Their Church and doctrine is far more mystical where the Catholic Church and doctrine are legalistic.
  • There are many other minor differences. Most of them are cultural. Their liturgy is very similar to and also quite different from a Catholic Mass.
Differences between them and mainstream Protestants/Evangelical Christians:
  • Like the Catholics, they believe in a priesthood that has been passed down to them from the Twelve Apostles. They believe this priesthood is necessary to carry out the functions of the Church.
  • Salvation for them is not through faith alone. Salvation for them is a divine mystery alive in sacraments, the Grace of God, and good works. They do not attempt to explain how man is saved but rather focus on communing with God.
  • They have a very complex liturgy with lots of historical tradition built up over many centuries and eschew innovation, whereas many Protestant services are simple often with modern music.
  • Like Catholics, they have monks and nuns.
  • They do not see the use of icons in their services and worship as idolatry as they are not worshiping the image, but honoring the one the image represents.
  • Additionally, they believe in the intercession of saints, which is asking saints to pray to God for you as they believe the Church does not end at death and that the dead can still benefit from our prayers and pray for us.
  • Like Catholics, they believe that the bread and wine at communion become the literal body and blood of Christ, though they offer no explanation for this, instead they say that it is a divine mystery mankind cannot explain.
  • Only members of their church may participate in Communion.
  • Like Catholics and Protestants, they have sacraments called the Great Mysteries. Unlike Catholics and Protestants, they do not number them to 7 or 2 but instead say the whole life of the Church is the Mysteries. Therefore they practice, among other things, baptism, confirmation, communion, confession of sin to a priest, anointing the sick, ordaining clergy, and marriage.
  • For them, Christ's main purpose was not to atone for mankind's sins. Christ's death on the cross did free man from sin and death they teach, but they also teach that Christ became man not to repay a vengeful God hellbent on punishing mankind, but so that mankind might become God. Not in the sense that mankind will become God himself or gods, but that they will be united within God forever.
I'm kind of excited to go back to this one. I used to attend this church many years ago. This Church was my first stop on the way out of Mormonism. I was never officially a member, and ended up Catholic instead before I lost faith in religion entirely.

I learned a lot about this religion and a lot about Greek culture from attending the church. I was and am still friends with the daughters of a Greek Orthodox priest and lived in their house temporarily while I was having issues with my family. I still consider their family to be a second family to mine, though they have since moved out of state and I don't talk to them as much as I would like.

This one is going to be nostalgic for me, but not in the way the Catholic Church was, and I don't think it will play with my head the same way. I'm very much looking forward to it. Tune in to see if it was as good of an adventure as I hoped.

Until then, peace be with you.

Friday, February 7, 2014

What could you endure?

So, I went to the Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall yesterday. It was quite the interesting experience, I must say. There is a new Kingdom Hall out in Roy that is located not far from a friend's house. When we turned in, there was an illuminated sign that welcomed us:

I do have to say that I love that everything there is bilingual (Spanish and English). I welcome diversity and love seeing it everywhere.

Before I get to the main body of the text, I want to have a minor rant.

Churches, temples, Kingdom Halls, synagogues, mosques, what have you, if you post on your website that your services start at a certain time, and then you get there and the sign says the same time, but you walk in 15 minutes before that time and the service is going, that's not cool. Their website said that they start at 7:30 PM on Thursdays. When we got there a lovely sign said that their services start at 7:30 PM.

When we walked in at 7:15, they were halfway done with Bible study. I asked one of the members later why this was the case. He said that they had a circuit overseer there and so the meeting was special (more on that later) but then said, "Most Kingdom Halls in the area have meetings at 7:30 on Thursdays, but we meet at 7." Really? Then maybe you should update that on THIS SIGN ON YOUR DOOR:

Okay, rant is over.


I wasn't expecting much in the way of atmosphere here. Especially from the exterior we were greeted by. It was very stark and the lighting was very harsh. It wasn't terribly inviting on the outside.

I wanted to snap a picture of the inside of it, but I couldn't because Bible study was in session because their service time sign and website lie to us, and I didn't want to be rude.

Since you didn't get to see the inside I'll do best to describe it for you. When we first walked in, it looked like you were entering the reception area of a hotel or office building. There was a front desk and I couldn't tell where we were supposed to go. A teenage boy came and welcomed us. Then asked if he could find us a seat. After seating us. He showed us the Kingdom Hall which was quite different than I had anticipated. It was decorated in various shades of beige and tan with gold trim. It looked very much like early to mid-90's decor. There was an elevated section at the front, basically a stage that had two faux marble columns, again in beige, on either side of the stage against the wall. On the front of the stage was a podium where there was a man leading the Bible study, three wooden chairs, only one of which was occupied, and a table behind the speaker that wasn't used at all during the service. On the wall on either side of the stage was written (one side English, one side Spanish) the famous line from the Lord's Prayer, "Let your Kingdom come."

We were seated in what I call event chairs, which are not quite permanent chairs, but they're far more comfortable than fold out chairs being that they're covered in more plush and better material and do not fold. These particular ones were grey and interlocked with one another forming rows that vaguely resembled pews.

Overall, the inside was less plain than I had anticipated, but the ugly 90's decor I found atrocious. Especially considering this congregation is new (2 months they said). So there is no excuse for the building being decorated like that.

The People:

I didn't get a chance to meet with or talk to people prior to the service because again, the service time sign and website lie to us. Of what I observed, the group was a mixed group. A lot of white/elderly folk, but many of other age groups and people of multiple ethnic and racial backgrounds. Everybody was well dressed and groomed.

Apparently, in these meetings, you need their literature, their hymnal, and their Bible. None of which is available at the entrance or on the seats. Luckily this nice lady named Heidi let us borrow her Bible study guide and her hymnal. Afterward, she and her extremely well dressed and articulate husband came and talked to us. They were nice, seemed to have mixed feelings about us when we explained who we were and why we were there. I think they were equal parts curious and suspicious. But they were very polite to us. Aside from them, nobody else really talked to us.

I got the impression that I was being sized up the whole time, or people were wondering why we were there. An interesting thing for people who proselytize a lot.

The Service:

I didn't get to see the first part of the service because the service time sign and website lie to us.

I got to see the last 20 minutes of Bible study, which luckily I got to borrow the book for from that lovely young lady. The name of the study guide was called Draw Close to Jehovah. The lesson was on how much Jehovah loves us as mankind and was done in Q&A style. When I say Q&A, I don't mean that someone asked questions and they answered with their opinions or thoughts on the matters. Instead, the man at the pulpit would read a paragraph, ask a question from the book, then they would pass a microphone to someone who had raised their hand. That person would then then repeat, often verbatim, the next sentence in the book. They were then told by the person leading the discussion, "That's very true," or "Thank you for that insight." There was no individual thought in the matter at all which I found quite interesting and wasn't expecting. I thought it was going to be much more of a discussion based Bible study like others I've been to in my life.

After Bible study, they sang a song from their hymnal called Sing to Jehovah. I didn't recognize a single hymn in the book, so I'm assuming they're all unique to the Jehovah's Witnesses. The name of the song we sang was called "Stay Awake, Stand Firm, Grow Mighty." I could make a seventh grade joke about that, but I'm just going to let it be. The song was pretty. Very basic tune. Both songs we sang had a very basic piano tune without any real frills or inspiration to it. But they were very short and sweet. I did like the hymns overall.

Next came the sermon delivered by one of the elders, the details of which are below. The service finished with another song, this one called, Enduring to the End.

The Message:

The sermon was about endurance and how much we can endure as humans. It had a very doomsday feel to it, which is not surprising considering Jehovah's Witnesses are historically a doomsday religion. They believe that the destruction of the world by Jesus Christ is imminent. They talked about things like, suppose the world changed and people began persecuting them and sending them to concentration camps. (Which the Nazis did to them. Jehovah's Witnesses were declared enemies of the state and sent to the death camps just like the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other people and groups deemed less than by society.) He told a story of this tough as nails woman who wouldn't slow down in her work. He asked her how she was able to keep going. She replied something I actually really enjoyed, "As long as I keep moving, they can't bury me." In a brief, one sentence summary, the whole message was, endure to the end.

Overall Experience:

We chose a very good time to go. They kept saying that the Circuit Overseer was there. Indeed he was sitting directly in front of me with all his paperwork and everything. I guess they pull out all of the stops when he comes to town. I didn't know who this guy was, so I looked that term up when I got home. Apparently, they are men who are personally appointed by the Governing Body (the 8 most powerful men in the Watchtower Society that runs the Jehovah's Witnesses) to go and oversee the conditions of individual congregations. We basically went when they were getting evaluated by the highest authorities, so I feel I saw them at their finest.

Overall, this was an interesting service. The hour and a half we were there flew by, I actually enjoyed myself while I was there. However, there was also a very weird vibe in that place. It had a very strong sense that they were involved in almost every aspect of each other's lives. I know that many of them work full time going door to door teaching about their religion, without pay. They call the most dedicated of these people "pioneers" and they devote up to 120 hours or more a month to that. Their website actually encourages them to often give up their full time jobs so they can do so if their means allow. This is an insane notion to me and is exploitation at its finest.

I would say the Jehovah's Witnesses' Kingdom Hall was a fun and educational experience. It was more fun and entertaining than expected, but I wouldn't be back anytime soon.

Additional Comments:

Tomorrow, I will be putting my pre-service blog up for Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. I'm actually really excited to go back to the Greek church. It's an experience unlike any other you will find.

Until then, peace be with you.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Knock, knock!

As mentioned in my previous blog, this Thursday, I am attending a Jehovah's Witnesses' Kingdom Hall. What is a Kingdom Hall? It's what they call their church buildings.

Most people don't know much about the Jehovah's Witnesses. I think the majority of people know two things about them, they're the people who show up at your door at inconvenient times of the day giving you pamphlets that have pictures of Jesus on them who looks like Kenny Loggins or Ewan McGregor, or that they don't celebrate Christmas. Occasionally, people know they don't do blood transfusions. But for as much as they're a punchline in America, I've noticed that they're very much a mystery to most people.

So, here's a list of things Jehovah's Witnesses have in common with mainstream Christianity:
  • Belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.
  • Belief in the virgin birth of Jesus.
  • Belief in the Bible as the inspired Word of God.
  • Belief in sin.
  • Belief in the coming end times.
  • Belief in angels and demons.
  • Belief that Jesus died for the sins of mankind by crucifixion.
  • Belief in the resurrection of Jesus.
  • Belief in the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment of mankind.
  • They practice baptism and have meetings each week where they pray, sing hymns, and study the Bible.
And here are a list of things that are unique to the Jehovah's Witnesses:
  • They do not believe in the Trinity. Instead they are strict monotheists believing there is only one God and that is Jehovah (YHWH or Yahweh) who is the Father Almighty.
  • Jesus is not God. Instead he's inferior to Jehovah and is the firstborn of creation. He is the Messiah and the one who delivers mankind from sin. They believe prior to him coming to Earth as a man, he was the Archangel Michael and resumed this identity after the resurrection.
  • They believe that the Holy Spirit is not a person but Jehovah's active presence on Earth.
  • They believe that Jesus didn't die on a cross, but was executed on a stake. They view the cross as a pagan symbol that is abhorrent to God.
  • They believe that of all the billions of people that have lived on Earth, only the most righteous 144,000 people will go to Heaven. The rest will remain on Earth that will be reborn as a terrestrial paradise with no war, poverty, illness, or famine.
  • They do not believe in an afterlife. For them, the dead are dead and have no consciousness whatsoever.
  • They do not believe in Hell. Hell for them is a metaphor for the destruction of the wicked by Jehovah.
  • Jesus rules the Earth invisibly from his throne in Heaven and will never again be seen by any humans on Earth except for the 144,000 who will go to Heaven.
  • They do not celebrate any holidays, this includes secular holidays and birthdays. They have one holy day they observe a year called the Memorial Service which commemorates the death of Jesus. At this service they distribute their version of communion. This service is held near the Jewish Passover celebration.
  • Their version of communion is only held once a year at the Memorial Service. The unleavened bread and wine are passed around the congregation, but only those certain of their status as one of the 144,000 may partake. The rest decline and merely look at the elements as they're passed around.
  • If a baptized member is disfellowshipped from the organization, they are to be shunned by anyone within the organization until they repent. This often tears families apart. I know of a personal example of this one.
  • They are forbidden from having blood transfusions, believing the scriptures prohibit ingesting blood of any kind.
  • They believe they have the exclusive truth, but do not believe in intolerance of other faiths.
  • They refuse to serve in the military, participate in patriotic events, or pledge allegiance to the state, flags, or any members of state.
  • They refuse to impose their religious beliefs on the public through political action.
The Jehovah's Witnesses are run by a group called the Watchtower Society. The Watchtower Society is based in Brooklyn, New York and is headed by the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses which is a group of men (currently 8) who all claim to be one of the 144,000. These men decide doctrine and the direction of the organization. They also oversee several committees which make up the remainder of the Watchtower Society. Not much is known about the internal governance of the society and it is plagued with public scrutiny resulting in many rumors and conspiracy theories about them.

The Watchtower Society distributes publications on a regular basis, I'm not sure if it's quarterly, monthly, or weekly. It might depend on the publication. Members hold the teachings in these publications as being truthful and correct interpretations of scripture and doctrine.

The Watchtower Society also produces Bibles that are distributed by Jehovah's Witnesses always free of charge throughout the world. These Bibles are a translation called the New World Translation, which was commissioned by the Watchtower Society. I have read this Bible alongside other translations. My personal opinion is that this Bible is a dubious translation at best with mistranslations that seem intentional to keep it consistent with Jehovah's Witnesses' doctrine. One red flag I find with this translation (and something they proudly say on their website) is that the committee who translated their Bible remains anonymous as do their credentials. In other words, just trust us that this translation is a good one, we wouldn't lie to you.

As far as the service goes, I know it's going to be very bare bones. I know they will open and close with a hymn and a prayer, and that the rest of the time will be devoted to Bible study and study of Watchtower literature with a Q&A session.

This should be an interesting experience. Wish me luck everybody.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Vlog of the experience so far

I have included a video to supplement the blog so far. I talk about some things that I didn't mention in my previous blogs and show you some goodies you didn't get to see in the blog.

Let me know how you are enjoying everything.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Where the Spirit lives (inside us) and where my demons hide (Cuba apparently)

This week, I checked out Hope Resurrected Church here in Ogden. Hope Resurrected is a member of the Pentecostal Church of God. I realized in my last blog, I didn't really share much of what Pentecostals were nor did I explain what they believe. Sorry about that. Here's a quick rundown:

  • Pentecostals are Trinitarian and Evangelical Protestants. This means that they believe in the Trinity (one God in three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and that they believe that salvation comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
  • Salvation is a gift from God given freely by the Grace of God to man through faith alone.
  • But what really separates them apart from other Evangelical Christians is their heavy focus on Baptism in the Spirit. They believe that the Holy Spirit washes over them and they become endowed with various spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues (incoherent babbling they believe is a manifestation of God through them), prophecy, spiritual and physical healing, etc.
Now with that out of the way, lets begin. Was my time at Hope Resurrected an experience that filled me with the life giving Spirit of God?


For some reason, I didn't expect the service to be held in a corner meeting room for a Christian architecture firm, but that's exactly what I found. The exterior of the building gave no clues that this might be the case. I thought that they would be meeting in a larger, more permanent facility as the sign outside makes it seem as though it's the most prominent establishment in this complex:

But, as the sermon I heard last week at St. Joseph's said, sometimes we find great things in the most unexpected places. The outside of the complex has a certain Bauhaus simplicity to it. Again, the exterior gave me no clue as to how the inside would be.

As we entered the building, the sign posted over the entry made me realize we were entering the architecture firm and not a business suite as I had thought.

After a bit of confusion over where we were supposed to go, we finally found the corner conference room that they use and went in. the room had a cross that they could wheel into the room up at the front, a projector to project the words of the songs to sing along, a bunch of chairs lined up, and a bench to be used for the altar call later on.

I snapped a picture as best I could of the room, but it was hard with the cramped space and all the people inside.

I have to say though, my favorite part of the atmosphere was the two red solo cups on the ceiling. It was quite a surreal thing to see, so I asked one of the members what they were for. I guess they're keeping the motion detectors in the conference room from going off or something like that. In any case, entertaining as hell to me.

Overall, the atmosphere was very ghetto to me, but I'm not one to judge a church based on where they meet. It's the service itself, the message, and the culture of the faith that gives it its meaning, not the place of worship. I've been to moving Catholic Masses in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and under a gazebo in an amusement park. In the end atmosphere can be completely looked over.

 The People:

The people were very warm and welcoming to us. One of the pastors came over and personally greeted us. He was very warm, put his hand on my shoulder and just chatted with us. I asked him a question about his necklace. It's a love poem from the bible which was fractured by the jeweler and one piece went to him and one to his wife on their 55th wedding anniversary. I thought that was a cute little sentiment. He later presented us with goody bags. Others came over and introduced themselves to us. One man talked to us for a few minutes about the church and how Jesus had given him meaning in his life.

I got the distinct impression from a number of people there that there was a large part of the congregation that many were down on their luck. Many seemed like they were recovering from drugs or ex-convicts for whom their faith in Jesus had given them strength and meaning. To all that, I say, good for them. This was especially true of a man who gave his testimony at the service. He had a strong speech impediment, was missing a lot of teeth, and just had the classic look of someone who had lived very hard with drugs. He kept alluding to his past and how he had changed so much. I'm glad to see when people find meaning in their lives and it helps them live happier and better quality lives.

Before the service, I heard the man who had come over and talked to us about the church and his relationship to Jesus explaining to other members why there was strange weather lately. He said that because there were a couple big earth quakes in the past few years, it caused the Earth's tilt to change and the Earth to spin faster. So that's why there was a polar front that came down into the Midwest and why the weather has been off. A lot of the people listening to him said, "Really? That's very interesting," and sucked it all right in. Now, I am not a meteorologist, I don't pretend to be an expert in any scientific field. But I have had several university level science classes including a physics class and a meteorology class, the latter of which I got an "A-" in and did some tutoring for. Therefore, I can say with a fairly reasonable level of confidence that that entire line of thought is complete horse shit. I really don't know how this even sounded remotely right to them, and it was an indication to me of how scientifically illiterate of a group I was dealing with.

The Service:

Let me just start with the obvious question all of you have. Nobody spoke in tongues. There was a woman up in the front at the very beginning of the service who may have been speaking in tongues, but her utterings weren't loud enough for me to determine if they were English or not.

There was a woman who began the service by welcoming everybody and then giving a special welcome to the Holy Spirit. She then got the crowd fired up with talking about the Spirit eliciting amens and hallelujahs from the congregation.

They then began playing audio recordings of Christian rock songs while they projected the words on screen. 3 young women led the congregation in song. These young women really got into it. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that these people love Jesus. Almost on a disturbing level. These girls between songs and verses were closing their eyes and raising their hands up to the Lord shouting, "Jesus. Lord Jesus we love you. We are in your hands." They looked to be nearly to a state of orgasm with their level of worship. These people would do anything for Jesus.

They sang a lot of songs in a row. Not nearly as many as Berean Baptist did, but still a lot of them right in a row with no breathing room in between. It did get a little monotonous after a bit and I was just wanting to sit down because they had us standing the whole time.

While the singing was going on, people were all doing their own thing. Some people were in tears crying, many had their hands raised up to or pointing to Heaven. Some were holding their chests and rocking back and forth muttering things to themselves. Nobody seemed to care what others were doing. It all seemed like personal time with Jesus to them.

Overall, other than the monotony of it, I enjoyed the singing portion of this service. The music was very pretty and contemporary.

After the singing, there were announcements and a sermon which I will get to in the next section, then afterward they did the altar call. Basically they invite people to come up and accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior. A couple young women went and a few members gathered around them putting their hands on them, some muttering things like, "Minister to them, oh Lord. Minister. Minister!" At the same time, a young man with some problems with his leg came up and knelt before the bench (altar). The pastor and several other members gathered around him and poured oil on his head and began spontaneous prayers for healing and praises to God.

The Message:

The announcements and sermon portion of the service began with a few common announcements about activities, and then an announcement that they were raising money for the pastor to go to Cuba on a mission. I was not terribly surprised by this, as Evangelical Christians are often engaged in missionary work. But then they explained the purpose of this mission. They explained that it was to go and fight the demonic dominion in Cuba. Now, I thought to myself, surely they mean this as a metaphor for the oppressive regime of Cuba and the living conditions of many of their citizens. Nope. They meant real honest to God demons. They told stories of demons manifesting themselves to the people of Cuba as dolls or in visions in water. They talked about demons actually terrorizing the locals with supernatural powers keeping them from sleeping and that the demons and witchcraft there was fighting against the Church of God. So, they are raising 2,000 dollars to have their pastor go and fight these demons in Cuba. I wish I were making that up. I don't think I could make that up if I tried. It's like Pastor Van Helsing. In the Post-Modern, post-industrial United States of America in the year 2014, this church is waging a literal, medieval battle on demons.

The sermon made absolutely no sense. The pastor who had talked to us and given the goody bags gave it. He gave everybody a lot of scripture verses to look over, he didn't really explain why he was using any of these verses, there was no real theme to speak of, a lot of the time he seemed confused and lost. He would bounce from one topic to another. I honestly wondered if he was exhibiting the early symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer's, and I don't mean that as a joke. Some of the things he talked about, in no particular order were, getting saved, the ascension of Jesus, going to Heaven, Noah's arc (presented as a real and literal story with archaeological evidence), the cross of Jesus, the Jews conspiring to kill Jesus, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., sewing seeds of faith, the day he got saved, an old Pentecostal song about the glory of Jesus, the Jews still being the apple of the eye of God and anyone who messes with them brings God's wrath upon themselves, etc. This incoherent sermon went on for an hour and fifteen minutes and only ended when members reminded him of what time it was. He said he hadn't finished his message and would have to another day. I was very confused about everything at the end of it all.

In the end, I don't even know what I can say about the message because there was no message to speak of.

Overall Experience:

I will say this church was a learning experience for me. I have heard of churches filled with people who believe in just bizarre things like demonic attacks and how scientifically illiterate our populous is. I never expected to see it so clearly as I have. There are a lot of people walking around who are this uneducated in science and do fill the gap with superstition and strange explanations for things. I just don't understand it.

The community of people seemed very nice, but in the end, I just couldn't believe this church experience was real and I did not enjoy myself. In less than a month, I've heard Christians glorifying slavery at one church and another talking about sending their pastor to Cuba to fight literal demons in a spiritual war. I don't know what to think of this! This disturbs me, I won't lie.

Additional Comments:

This next week is going to be a special week. I will be attending two separate services. On Thursday I will be visiting the Jehovah's Witnesses' Kingdom Hall in Roy, Utah, and on Sunday I will be attending Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Ogden. Look for two separate pre-service blog entries and two separate blog entries on each church visit.

Also, I may post a video blog tomorrow just summarizing my journey up to this point and highlighting some things that didn't make it into my blogs.

Until my next entry, peace be with you.