Saturday, May 31, 2014

Washington Heights Church, here I come

I was going to do Good Friday at Washington Heights Church, but the plans got cancelled last minute. So, I'm just doing a normal Sunday there instead.

I have already done a pre-service blog about Washington Heights Church, and don't want to rehash that. I realize that it talks about Good Friday, but I'm just going to provide a link for anyone interested here:

Monday, May 26, 2014

My surreal visit to the Apostolic United Brethren, a Mormon polygamist church

I went down to Bluffdale, Utah to the world headquarters of the Apostolic United Brethren. As I mentioned, this is the church that the people from Sister Wives belong to. I have to say, this was unlike any other religious exploration I'd ever done.


First off, the city of Bluffdale is between Salt Lake, and another slightly metropolitan area about a half hour south of Salt Lake called Provo. It's a very rural area filled with windmills, strip mines, and miles upon miles of desert landscape. You really do feel like you're in a small city in the middle of nowhere in the area.

Bluffdale is about an hour and a half drive south of where I live. Finding the place proved to be a lot harder than we anticipated, we knew it was near Camp Williams Army Base, but it wasn't obvious. We drove around for a very long time before we finally came upon it from the main road. We turned down a side road that actually turned out to be the road leading there.

When we saw it around the bend, it was more surreal than I expected. I was told this was a ranch. This is was not a ranch, but a compound. There were two main buildings and several smaller buildings, including what looked like a couple of housing units, surrounding the two main ones, and a large parking lot.

Here are the two main buildings:

We were unsure which one to go to, so just followed members to the one on the right. I asked someone if this building was opened to the public, he said "Yes," and then quickly sprinted away from us. From my understanding, one of these buildings is the meeting house, and the other is their Endowment House (a substitute temple) used for their Endowment Ceremony (a special and secret ceremony in the Mormon tradition that is believed to endow you with special blessings from God).

This building was their chapel. 

The entry way to the building was a simple foyer with white walls. There was a picture of George Washington praying at Valley Forge. I've seen this painting in many LDS churches and buildings. The significance of this painting to Mormons has never been explained to me, and anyone who can tell me why it's so common, please let me know. Right next to the entrance was a picture of this church's most influential leader, Rulon Allred. The picture was surrounded by a few flower displays. Also along the wall was a picture of Joseph Smith and one of Jesus.

The chapel was a giant gymnasium complete with basketball hoops that were raised up. Towards the front of the gym was a stage. The stage was converted into a pulpit with a podium and several chairs for the leaders of the priesthood and the choir director. To the right side of the stage were pictures of the first three Mormon prophets, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor. These are the only prophets the AUB honor. Below their pictures was a quote from John Taylor which read, "The Kingdom of God or nothing." To the left of the stage was a picture of Jesus, and right below it was a banner that had a quote from the Book of Mormon.

Overall, the atmosphere was not one designed for function and not aesthetic. I wasn't impressed by the look of it, but it was functional and did have a few personal touches on it.

The People:

This was one group of people who didn't want us there. Only two people talked to us the whole time we were there, and the rest wouldn't even make eye contact with us. They were rather friendly with each other, but not us.

The people were dressed like typical Mormons going to church, long skirts and cap sleeve tops for women, slacks and ties on men. There were a couple hundred of them, and apparently that was about a third of the congregation. The rest were at a funeral for one of the members who had died.

There were a few members that looked like the stereotype of a polygamist with the braids and prairie dresses, but they were a minority. I'm assuming these ones are ones who left the FLDS or similar groups and joined this one.

Most of the members of the congregation were white with a few Latino members. In addition to that, most of the people looked remarkably similar to each other. So many of the young boys were tall, lanky guys with blond hair, and many of the women were similarly built. The ages spanned many generations, from babies to people in their 80's or 90's.

When we first entered the chapel, an elderly gentleman came and introduced himself to us. He then found some other elderly gentleman who looked a lot like Vincent Price in his old age. The old man then proceeded to interrogate us as to why we were there. The first question out of his mouth after he got our names was, "Are you guys LDS?" I told him that I was, but that I left, and my two other friends with me told him no as well. He then asked if we believed in the Book of Mormon. We again answered no. He then asked if we believed in Joseph Smith and modern day prophets. We again said no. He then looked at us with this look of disdain and asked why we would waste our precious time by coming there. We explained that we were just there to see what it was all about. For a moment, it seemed he wasn't going to let us into the chapel, and nearly asked us to leave. At the last minute, my friend Lisa won him over by talking about her Mormon pioneer heritage. This seemed to disarm him and he let us come in, but very reluctantly.

We sat towards the back, and the president of their church, along with several other members sat up on the stage. They kept looking at us, pointing at us, then talking about us. This concerned me a bit, but we played it cool.

Overall, I realized we were not really welcome there. They didn't do anything to make us feel welcome and avoided us in general. People even moved to make sure they didn't sit by us. I've never felt less welcome in any place we've been. The families were big and definitely polygamist families, but they were dressed quite normally for the most part.

The Service:

The service was very similar, yet quite different from an LDS Sacrament meeting. It started with the President of the Priesthood (not just the leader of the local group, but the leader of their whole church) saying a few things. Then announcements were made by several members in the congregation.

After the announcements, a hymn was sung. The hymn was a typical, Mormon hymn called "Come, Come Ye Saints." The hymnals were actually old LDS hymnals from the 40's and 50's that it seemed they had bought in bulk, thus none of the songs were different from any hymns of my childhood. After the hymn a prayer was said, and the President stood up again to speak.

He then said that they would begin the Sacrament by singing a hymn. He looked straight at the three of us and said, "Those who have not been baptized by the hands of this Priesthood, we ask that you do not partake of the Sacrament."

The Sacrament was interesting as it was similar, yet radically different from the LDS version of it. LDS Sacrament services typically use pre-sliced white bread torn into bits and individual, thimble sized cups of water for their communion. Here, they used several full loaves of home baked bread and several glass water glasses to hold the water.

There were a group of about 20 men who passed the Sacrament, and two who blessed it. As they blessed it, they all got on their knees. The two guys who blessed the Sacrament then did something I wasn't expecting and put their arm to the Square. This is a symbol that is very sacred in the Mormon world as it's one of the special gestures used in the temple. The only time I've ever seen this done outside of the Temple is during a baptism, so to see it done for Sacrament was quite shocking. The prayers they used to bless it were identical to the ones of my childhood.

They passed the Sacrament by going row by row giving the people the bread. After all the members had gotten the bread, they asked anyone who hadn't been served to raise their hands. They then went back and had people eat the bread a second time until it was all gone. They then passed the water by taking the glasses to the people and handed it to each of them one at a time. Again, once all the members had been served, they asked if anyone had not been served, then they had the members partake a second time again until all of the water was gone. I liked this part of the tradition of not wasting any of the bread or water, because it used to bother me as a Mormon when I would clean up after Sacrament meeting and they told us to just throw the bread and water out. Their President spoke on this immediately afterward stating that to throw it out would be a dishonor to Jesus and would be like symbolically throwing away his body and blood that had been given up for us.

There was then a speaker. The speeches are given by members, and supposedly impromptu. More on that below. The speech was so insanely boring and long, and only the first speech of the service. We were feeling more and more uncomfortable as time went on and more and more bored. We weren't the only ones bored, everyone was playing on their phones, hunched over, and/or nearly asleep with this speaker. He didn't seem to get them pumped up and inspired.

After he was done, my friends and I sneaked out. We were noticed by everyone, and we weren't sure if they were going to be relieved, offended, follow us out, or all three. They didn't seem happy, and we just wanted to get as far away as possible because we felt very unwelcome there.

Overall, this was the most grueling and uneasy service for me to sit through, it was like a Sacrament meeting of my childhood, but much longer, more boring, and stranger. It was scheduled to go on for two hours, but I have a feeling it would have gone longer as we stayed for only one speech and that went on for 45 minutes after the 30 minute Sacrament portion of the service.

The Message:

This is a hard one to do as the PA system they have was horrible and the room had terrible acoustics. It was hard to understand anything being said. Add to that that the speaker was a man from Mexico with a thick accent and it was even harder to understand what was said. I didn't pay attention to the whole of his 45 minute speech as it required a lot of effort to understand, but he did touch on a few themes.

One of the themes was that the people of the Tribe of Ephraim must go and save the Lamanites in Mexico and elsewhere. Let me explain this one. Mormons teach that the tribes of Israel will gather in Zion, which to them is in the New World and in Jerusalem during the Last Days. As such, Mormons believe they are adopted spiritually into one of the 12 Tribes of Israel and that the tribe they belong to is revealed to them in a special prophecy session most Mormons have done to them in their late teens called a Patriarchal Blessing. Most white Mormons are adopted into the Tribe of Ephraim. Mormons also believe that the current Native Americans, including Latinos, are descended from a race called the Lamanites. They believe the Lamanites were Israelites who came to the Americas and were cursed with darker skin for their sinful ways. Therefore, he was saying that those white people who had been adopted into the Tribe of Ephraim must go and spread the Gospel to the people of Mexico and beyond to bring them back to righteousness.

Another thing he was talking about was the significance of special dates of when the Priesthood was restored and how it coincided with various prophecies. This one was hard to follow and where I spent the least amount of time paying attention as none of it seemed to make sense.

The other thing he said was that it was the goal of their church to go out and purify the LDS Church by actively seeking to convert people in the LDS Church. They believe that the LDS Church is valid, but it must be brought back to the fullness of Truth and that they will be the ones to do it. He stated that they have lots of work to do until the LDS Church fully embraces the Principle (plural marriage) and the United Order (a form of Mormon communism) both of which were once practiced by the LDS Church but later abandoned.

Essentially, he said that we must go out and convert the Lamanites and the Mormons and not rest until they were both brought into polygamy and into agreement with their doctrine and practices.

I wasn't expecting this militant of a message to come from the pulpit. It was all at once horrifying, intriguing, and insanely boring.

Overall Experience:

I can safely assert that after watching that show Sister Wives and seeing this organization that the show Sister Wives is a very polished, well choreographed show to make this group seem more mainstream and progressive than it is. They are not welcoming to outsiders, in spite of saying so, they still have an isolated, compound feel to them even though they are actively engaged in the world, and they are seeking to convert the entire LDS Church into their dogma and belief. They don't seem to be as progressive as the LDS on things like race. While they use modern technology and dress in modern clothing, they are still very much in the mindset of a different time. Try as they want to look like they are part of the mainstream, their lifestyle and radical beliefs will keep them from being so.

In short, this wasn't Sister Wives, it was another Mormon Fundamentalist group in modern clothing.

Additional Notes:

There are some small changes coming to this blog. Stay tuned for more details on that.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Off to see the polygamists of Utah

How could I do a religion blog about Utah and not visit a polygamist community? I am not visiting the infamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) nor am I visiting the Latter Day Church of Christ (commonly called the Kingston Clan). Instead, I will be visiting the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB sometimes called the Allred Group).

You may not think you know about this group and it's obscure. While it hasn't been in the national headlines like the FLDS church has, it is nonetheless a church that has made the national spotlight, just not in a way people may think. This is the church that the people on the reality TV show Sister Wives belong to.

Mormon fundamentalism is a complex subject. About the only common threads with Mormon fundamentalism are belief in the teachings of Joseph Smith and the practice of polygamy. So here is a brief overview:

The Church of Christ that Joseph Smith started in 1830 was originally did not practice polygamy. However, early on in the Church's history, Joseph Smith began practicing polygamy in secret. Towards the end of Joseph's life, many higher ups in the Church were also practicing polygamy but kept it secret, though it was known among many outsiders by this point.

When Joseph Smith died, his church fractured into many sects. The largest of these was led by Brigham Young to Utah. This sect practiced polygamy openly and had many standoffs with the US government about it.

In 1890, the Church ended its practice of polygamy officially, stating that God had sent a revelation to their prophet at the time, Wilford Woodruff, that it should cease. The practice went on for a couple decades in secret in the Church until officials in the Church cracked down heavily on the practice.

Many felt that the Church's leadership had fallen into error and caved to pressure from the US government. It was taught in the Church prior to this revelation that polygamy was an eternal principal that would never be abolished. Many people split from the main Church and formed independent groups, the largest of which today is the FLDS.

About the AUB:

The AUB and the FLDS originate from the same group, called the Short Creek Group. However, the two groups split from each other long ago and have grown very different. The AUB is a polygamist group based out of Bluffdale, Utah with about 10,000 members.

Similarities between mainstream Mormons (LDS) and the AUB:

  • Both believe that Joseph Smith restored the primitive Christian church that Jesus had established.
  • Both groups believe in the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price as holy scriptures.
  • Both groups believe they have a restored priesthood handed down to them in an unbroken line to Joseph Smith and from him to Jesus.
  • Both groups believe in the Godhead as three distinct and separate beings rather than the Trinity in traditional Christian understanding.
  • Both groups practice secret temple ceremonies.
  • Both groups believe in eternal marriage.
  • Both groups believe in revelation.
  • Both groups believe in three kingdoms mankind will go to after the Last Judgment: the Celestial Kingdom, Telestial Kingdom, and Terrestrial Kingdom. Outer Darkness awaits the devil, his angels, and those who denied the truth after absolute witness of it.
Differences between the LDS and AUB:
  • The biggest and most obvious difference is that the LDS Church stopped practicing polygamy; however, the AUB holds it as a central tenant.
  • The AUB does not have a prophet or president of their Church, nor do they have a Quorum of Twelve who guide the Church. Instead, they have a council of high priests who run things. They are headed by the Senior Member and together, they oversee the Priesthood. They state that the president of the LDS Church prior to the banning of the practice created this group to protect the principle of plural marriage and that it has continued to this day.
  • The AUB believes in the Adam-God doctrine. This doctrine was taught by early Mormon prophets and states that God the Father took on the body of the first man, Adam, and therefore Adam is our God in bodily form. The LDS Church taught this doctrine was false, and now denies it was ever taught, in spite of lots of historical records to the contrary.
  • The AUB believes that the LDS Church is an inspired church with a valid priesthood, but that the LDS Church is in error and that the AUB holds the full truth. In turn, the LDS consider the AUB to be devoid of a valid priesthood and heretical.
  • The AUB believes in the United Order, essentially a quasi-communist system that its members live by, in which they share common goods among the community. This was a staple of the early Mormon movement, but abandoned by the LDS Church as it was unworkable in a large church. The LDS Church does hold this as an ideal and awaits the day when they can practice it fully.
Differences between the AUB and FLDS:
  • The AUB blend into mainstream society, whereas the FLDS intentionally separate themselves from the outside world and tend to live in compounds.
  • The FLDS have a prophet, Warren Jeffs, where the AUB do not.
  • The FLDS have many additional restrictions the AUB does not, such as: clothing restrictions on color and style, foods that may be eaten, etc.
  • The AUB allow their members to interact with the outside world completely and are free to leave the faith without losing their family or friends. The FLDS only interact with outside world when necessary and if members leave, they are shunned.
  • Marriages in the FLDS Church are arranged by the prophet. The AUB are allowed to marry people of their choosing.
The service is an afternoon service this Sunday and from what I have heard, is basically a Mormon Sacrament meeting like the one I've attended before. I'm very curious to see this, and can't wait for it.

I will let you know how it goes. Until then, peace be with you.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tea time with the Ogden Japanese Christian Church

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I went into this adventure blind. What was it like, and were there any surprises along the way?


The church itself is a gorgeous building. It's an old structure built about a century or so ago. The building was originally owned by a German congregation, but was purchased by the local Japanese community. The building reflects a traditional, Western church style.

The interior is a lovely chapel reminiscent of an old school Baptist church, but with exceptionally well done stained glass windows.

The stained glass windows had German writing underneath several of the panels. Translated, they say, "Kindergarten," "Sunday School," and "Women's Club." I don't know why they say these things, but it was interesting to see German on the stained glass windows of a Japanese Christian church.

Overall, the atmosphere was a pretty, typically protestant chapel, simple, yet elegant.

The People:

It was an interesting group. Mostly Japanese individuals born in the States. There was only one woman from Japan that I knew of who spoke with a heavy accent and was a very sweet lady.

Many of them seemed to be well educated. The pastor spoke French with me afterward. Many people held advanced degrees, one lady was even a microbiology professor at the university where I got my degree.

They were very friendly towards us. After the service, they invited us down for a tea and light refreshments. The luncheon was pretty nice with sandwiches, fresh fruit, and various teas. We had a very lovely conversation about university, culture, the history of the church, etc. It turns out its pretty much just a Presbyterian church with a lot of Japanese people who attend. And we had a very wonderful time. Until...

One lady asked us, "Are you guys Christians?" When I answered, "No, we're both atheists," the pleasantness left the room. One lady looked at me and said, "Well, I have a book for you to read. It's called the Bible." She said it in a teasing sort of tone, but there was a maliciousness behind it. Another lady then said, "She's just kidding. Well, not really." I then told her I'm extremely familiar with the Bible, I've read it cover to cover a couple times, and that that's what actually led me out of Christianity. She basically told me I just don't read it right. I told her several of the reasons the Bible as a book turned me off, but it was to no avail.

I'm sick of people assuming I haven't read the Bible, that I don't know what I'm talking about in matters of religion, etc. because I do not buy into their beliefs. I know your beliefs. People judge atheists as immoral, corrupt people who seek to destroy religion. I am not that. I'm not that at all. I have a clear moral center, most atheists I know are actually quite moral people. You mention you don't believe and people act as though they caught you in the basement murdering children. I am sick of it.

Overall, the people were nice until they found out we didn't believe what they did, then they made the last 10 minutes of our meeting quite uncomfortable. We said nothing offensive and nothing to warrant them attacking us. We were respectful and didn't challenge their beliefs in any way. We didn't deserve to be ganged up on.

The Service:

The service was pretty much just a straight forward Presbyterian service. It was completely in English, there were no Japanese elements to it at all. The music was from the hymnal for the Presbyterian Church USA. The organist played beautifully, but only one person really sang, and that was the woman who was from Japan. She had a very lovely singing voice.

It was basically a hymn, a prayer of penance, an absolution, another hymn, a sermon, and a prayer with a hymn.

The pastor was definitely sincere in his message and delivery. You could tell he really believed in this and was quite happy in his beliefs.

Overall, I was hoping for a different experience, something new and exotic, but it was pretty much same old sort of service.

The Message:

The message was a simple, typical message of Christianity. Essentially that the natural man is an enemy of God and that we should crucify the flesh and pursue the Spirit instead. I feel I covered this topic in last week's blog, so I will not go into it again.


Overall, the service was pretty generic, the people were really nice until they found out we didn't believe like they did, and I probably wouldn't go back, but I had a good time.

Additional Notes:

Now to unveil one of the big moments I've been saving for this blog. I will be visiting a polygamist church, the Apostolic United Brethren, the same church that the people from Sister Wives on TLC attend.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Going to see Ogden's Japanese Christian Church

This Sunday, I will be attending Ogden Japanese Christian Church. This week will be a little bit of a different experience for me. Generally, I do a bit on the group's beliefs and history. But it's rare that I come across a group I don't know much about, and this is the case with this one. So as a surprise to myself, I'm going in blind. I'm not doing any research on the group at all.

All I know about them is that they're Japanese based in some fashion, and they're somehow allied with the Presbyterians. Other than that, I don't know anything about their liturgy, specific beliefs, where they are on the Presbyterian spectrum, etc.

I hope this ends up being fun, but I'm going in with no expectations. I don't even know how to dress for it.

Wish me luck. Until next time, peace be with you.

Monday, May 12, 2014

On Spiritual Abuse

Today's blog is a little bit of a departure from my usual stuff. I have decided to write a piece on something important to me, the topic of spiritual abuse in religion. This is nothing new to this age, nor is it specific to any one religious tradition. Spiritual abusers and spiritually toxic environments exist in all religion and all spiritual practices. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. all can be abusers. Therefore, you should understand what spiritual abuse is and what it means.

Warnings signs you may be experiencing spiritual abuse:

  • Leadership cannot be questioned. If you're attending a religious group in which the leadership cannot be questioned because it is believed that they are speaking directly for God or some other supernatural entity, there is a strong likelihood of spiritual abuse.
  • Leadership is painted as flawless. If you've never heard anything negative about your group's leadership, if they claim to have special access to truth that keeps them from erring, or they seem to be amazing, nearly superhuman people that you could only dream of being, it is possible they are manipulating you.
  • If you feel there are a number of things being hidden from you.
  • If your group does not disclose their finances publicly.
  • If money is a topic continuously brought up. I'm not talking about phrases like, "We are hurting for money to keep the lights on in this building," or "Remember, we rely on your donations." All churches and organizations need money to survive. That's just a fact. But if you're hit up for money left and right; you are asked to bring in copies of your financial documents; or have books, movies, courses, or services solicited to you constantly, this is a huge red flag. Additionally, if your salvation or spiritual well being are conditional on you donating a certain amount of money to the organization, this a red flag.
  • A tactic called "love bombing" was used on you. Essentially, what this means is that the members of the group, especially if they hold leadership positions, praised and loved you upon first meeting you, then as soon as you were in, they began criticizing you. Example: Leadership tells you that you're a shining example and very smart, then months later tells you you've gone astray and you need to be fixed.
  • If the focus is on sin or defect in you. If in the majority of services or interactions with you they constantly bring up sin or some defect with you.
  • If you are made to feel guilty constantly or that you're not contributing enough.
  • You are told you are worthless.
  • If they question your loyalty to the group or cause if you raise any questions.
  • If they tell you that if you leave them, you will be miserable.
  • If you're asked to donate huge portions of your time to the cause with no financial compensation.
  • If you have to pay money to achieve a certain level of holiness or spiritual wellness and no alternative is given.
  • If you are struggling financially, and still expected to donate to the organization.
  • If they demand that you perform services for them in exchange for charitable compensation when you are down on your luck.
  • If they will not hear your concerns with things that are happening within the organization.
  • If they take things told to them in confidence and use it as blackmail to get you to submit to their authority, get money out of you, or provide them a service.
  • If the focus is on the group at the expense of the individual. If you're in a group that tells you that all members must live a certain lifestyle, dress a certain way, discourages individuality, or tells you you need to be more like somebody else. Also, if they tell you your desires aren't as important as the common goal of the group.
  • If you are asked to sign legal documents or if you're asked to swear to things before being told what you are agreeing to.
  • If you feel like you have no voice and no way to express your concerns.
Spiritual abuse is a serious matter. It can seriously damage your self esteem and lead to many other issues. If you have been spiritually abused, it is not your fault, you are not stupid for having fallen victim to it, and you did nothing wrong. If you discover that you have been victimized, anger is a very normal reaction. If you feel you want to talk to someone about it, I am here, I also know many other people of many faith traditions and those outside of religion who would be more than happy to talk things out with you.

If you feel like you're in a situation where you are being spiritually abused, do not ignore it, and seek help in some form. If you feel physically threatened by the organization for trying to leave, contact law enforcement.

Remember, your religion should be a safe haven where you are pushed to grow into a better person and feel a sense of community. You should always feel safe and at peace in your religious community. And most of all, remember that you are not forced to stay with any group. Your participation in the group is 100% voluntary and they cannot force you to stay. You do not need anybody who will exploit you.

Until next time, peace be with you. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Genesis: A Familiar Project

Today was the day I decided to check out The Genesis Project. Was it what I was expecting? Sort of.


I will give them this, they did atmosphere exceptionally well. The building is located in the heart of a restaurant row on 12th Street in Ogden. To blend in with the restaurants nearby, they've added a coffee shop. The exterior is actually pretty inviting with a huge billboard advertising the church and a cool setup.

I went into the coffee shop first, which I have to admit impressed me quite a bit. I was expecting minimal atmosphere and a lot of Christian imagery. To my surprise, it was like a hip independent coffee house with an extensive menu, lots of yummy looking pastries, and best of all, the coffee was pretty damn good.

I then went to the foyer of the church which was very industrial feeling with concrete floors, modern color blocking, and strange enough, Christian themed pop art, such as this:

I always love blue eyed, Caucasian Jesus. That's a topic for another day. I actually do like this painting. It's huge, too, about 5 or 6 feet tall.

They call their chapel an auditorium, much like Alpine Church, and that's not a misnomer. the hallway leading into it was like a movie theater hallway, which was kind of cool. I got inside the auditorium, which was dark, had only the stage lit up with multi-colored lights, chairs lined up to sit in, etc. It reminded me a lot of Alpine Church, the decoration was even similar, except the room was darker and the atmosphere was a little more like a concert than a church.

There was a television monitor near the entrance which had announcements for various things, some that stuck out were the stand-up comedy night every week, C.S. Lewis quotes, and a "Happy Mother's Day" message. There was also a very cool cross in the back of the auditorium. It was a rough looking one with a crown of thorns around it and lit with a light that alternated colors.

Overall, the atmosphere was amazing. And in a different life, this really would have appealed to me. It was modern, seemed really in tune with pop culture, and was well crafted.

The People:

There were a lot of people at the service of various ages, dressed in everything from blouses and slacks to a jumper a mechanic would wear. Nobody came and introduced themselves to us, but I didn't get any indication anyone didn't want us there, or that they felt high and mighty about us being there.

The people at the coffee shop were very nice to us and seemed to go for the personal touch with their customer service skills.

Overall, the people seemed nice and varied. There was even an Elvis impersonator in the crowd I saw as we left. It was certainly not a boring group of church goers.

The Service:

The service was not what I was expecting. It was described to me as a Christian rock concert or even a Christian rave by some people. But there wasn't the energy or what not that the website kind of promised. It was just a live band playing contemporary Christian songs with colored lights. There was no light show, no fog machines, or anything that the pictures on the website led me to believe there would be.

The service was very typical for an Evangelical service. It began with a few hymns, again in the Christian rock genre, people raising their hands and swaying to the music. Then they bowed their heads and said a prayer before they began a sermon which pretty much took up the rest of the time.

Overall, it felt like deja vu with a lot of other churches I'd been to, and wasn't what I was hoping for. I wanted kind of a different experience, but instead got more of the same.

The Message:

The message was the bulk of this service. The message was given by a man who lost both of his legs and one of his arms. He goes around now, basically doing motivational speaking. He started by coming onto the stage and joking around a bit, before putting on a hat that said the word "handy" on it. He then said that it was his handy cap and that was the only handicap he had. He then talked about how the only handy caps we have are the ones we put on ourselves.

The message then turned to Jesus for a moment, then he started talking about riding marathons he does, in which he pushes himself to the limits to ride over mountains, all with one arm. I liked the metaphor, and he basically said that there would always be other mountains, but after you transverse one, the others don't seem so scary.

All that was well and good, but there were some parts of the message I really didn't like. First of all, he talked about how he basically got into an accident after a night of drinking and partying. He said he hit a power pole and the car slid into a ditch, and he got out without a scratch on him, and he and the friend he was with walked away laughing that they had cheated death. Then he said he touched a felled power line and the shock went through his body and blew out his knees. He recovered in a hospital for 6 months having both legs amputated, then after trying to save his arm, had to amputate it as well.

Now, this story sounds a bit suspicious to me. First of all, I've seen some serious accidents and the aftermath in my time. I have never once in my life seen anybody walking away from an accident laughing. Most people I've seen after an accident are in shock, convulsing, crying, glazed look in their paralyzed faces, confusion, lying on the ground because they're dizzy, etc. So, that had me a bit suspicious. But also, he said that he walked away and then touched the power line with his hand and it blew out his knees. Electricity is fast moving, much faster moving than human reaction time. Having not been there, but just hearing about his injuries, what I can gather probably happened was he crashed into the power pole, crawled out of the car, and as he was crawling, his hand touched the felled power line and the current followed the path of least resistance, his arm, down through his torso, and out his knees.

I feel very bad for him, and I couldn't imagine going through anything so traumatic. He then said that he got out of the hospital, and went right back to the behavior that led him there, partying, drinking too much, drugs, etc. I've known a lot of people who have spiraled out of control, and it's always very sad to watch. I hope I'm never in that sort of hell. Then he talked about how he went to church with a girl, who later ended up being his wife, and how he made the most courageous decision of his life, getting saved.

Here's where I call bullshit. I'm sorry, that decision may have had a huge impact on your recovery from a toxic lifestyle, but I refuse to believe you didn't have moments in your recovery where you gave up your will to live, the decision to have limbs amputated, and other big decisions weren't more courageous. I'm sure his religious experience was life changing, but I think it takes away from his own significant accomplishments. He made it through a trauma that could have swallowed many people whole, yet takes no credit for it.

Tying into that, he also said in his sermon that God knows we're weak and need to be toughened up, and that we're nothing without God. This is probably the part of the modern Christian message that bothers me most. It's this message that you're damaged, that there is nothing good about you, and you need fixing. Yes, human beings are flawed, but that's part of the beauty of humanity. Humanity is capable of horrible things, and often really sinks to evil levels. We have war, poverty, genocide, ethnic cleansing, etc. We steal, we rape, we murder, we exploit. But, I don't think most people actively seek to do these things. Yes, a few do, but I think most people only resort to these things out of desperation or situations spiraling out of control. Most people, in my experience, try to be good people, try to do decent things, but the world is a harsh place and pushes us down dark avenues which makes us do things we didn't think we would do.

But to hear how Christianity, in general, talks about human beings, it makes us sound like we're nothing but monsters roaming the earth hellbent on destroying everybody, and I take issue with that. Not all branches teach this. Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, says that mankind is made in the image of God and is good because of this. For them, Adam's sin causes us to have a nature inclined towards sin, but we're not in and of ourselves totally sinful monsters.

Then it offers an antidote, accept Jesus, live by his teachings, and life will get better. And for many people, that is the case, but for a lot of people, it also leads to them feeling depressed that they're not living up to expectations, that they will never be good enough, etc. I understand that the Christian message of grace is supposed to eliminate feelings like that, but it often only exacerbates them. You tell a person that's down on their luck that they're a worm and nothing they could ever do would be good enough, but don't worry, do what we say and it will make everything better, they try it, and everything isn't better, it only makes a lot of people feel worse. It worked for all of these people, why didn't it work for me? There must be a defect with me. This is what many people start thinking.

Now, I'm not saying that all Christianity does this, nor am I saying that this is how all Christians feel, nor that there's a system inherently exploitative within Christianity, but it can be used to spiritually abuse people. Spiritual abuse is a very real phenomenon, and one I am writing a blog about for the middle of this week. Spiritual abuse is found in all spiritual systems and unacceptable in all cases. But there are also good examples in a lot of systems as well.

Another thing that I found interesting was that he would tell stories from the Bible, but he would add to and embellish the stories. It really shouldn't bother me, people see their own experiences in these stories. But it does remind me of hearing and absorbing all of these Bible stories as a child, then being scandalized as an adult when I read these stories and realized they had been served to me heavily edited and that they often weren't what I thought they were.

In short, I am happy he got out of a lifestyle that was spiraling downwards, I'm happy he has meaning in his life, I'm happy he seems to be optimistic, but I do take issue with a number of things he said.

Overall Experience:

Overall, it wasn't at all what I was expecting. I really did enjoy the coffee shop, atmosphere, and the music wasn't half bad. But the message and service just felt all too familiar from what I was expecting. I think it would have been better if I had been expecting something else. It wasn't a terrible experience by any means, just sort of a let down.

Friday, May 9, 2014

About to go see The Genesis Project

It's a short one. This week, I will be going to The Genesis Project. The Genesis is a non-denominational Christian church. I know what you're thinking, Chad, didn't you already visit a non-denominational Christian church when you went to Alpine Church? Yes, but this one is going to be different in tone and atmosphere.

Just like Alpine Church, and most non-denominational, Evangelical Christian churches you'll encounter, they believe in:

  • The Trinity, one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus was the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, fully God and fully man.
  • Jesus was born of a virgin and performed miracles.
  • Jesus died for the sins of mankind.
  • You must accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior in order to be saved.
  • Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
  • Works will never save you, only grace through faith.
  • Believer's baptism by immersion as a sign of commitment to Jesus once saved.
  • Belief in Heaven and Hell as well as the Last Judgment and resurrection of mankind.
  • The Bible as the Word of God and the only authority.
Unlike Alpine will be the worship. As I understand it, it's basically a Christian rock concert that happens every week on 12th Street in Ogden complete with live music, fog machines, colored lights, etc. I'm quite excited to see that. Plus they have a coffee shop, so if everything else ends up a bust, there's that at least.

I will let you all know how it goes.

Until then, peace be with you.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Went old school. My time with the Orthodox Jews.

Sorry about the spotty nature of my blog output recently. Been a busy couple of weeks, I apologize. This week, my blog will be returning to normal.

This week I went to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. A little background on Orthodox Judaism:

  • Jewish Law has 613 commandments that Orthodox Jews feel must be observed.
  • Orthodox Judaism observes a very strict interpretation of these laws which include: prohibitions against many acts on the Sabbath, such as no work, no writing, no cooking, etc.; strict gender roles; observance of Kosher; etc.
  • Use of Hebrew only in worship.
  • Traditional worship passed down through the ages.
  • Following the teachings of rabbis and rebbes. Rebbes are higher than rabbis and are similar in ways to gurus in Hinduism.
  • For more information on Judaism in general, see my blog on Reform Judaism.
So how was the experience?


They forbid me to take notes or pictures. When I asked a member later, they told me it was due to the Sabbath restrictions. The synagogue is located in the district of Salt Lake known as Sugar House, strangely enough just a couple blocks down from the Scientology Church. The synagogue is located in a complex with several rooms for different functions, including a mikvah (roughly equivalent to a Christian baptismal font used for purification ceremonies) and a social hall. The synagogue itself was a smaller room. I found a picture of it online.

To explain this picture, the Orthodox tend to refer to the synagogue as "shul," meaning "school." As you can see from the setup, it is very much like a classroom, complete with desks. The front of the sanctuary has the ark, the chest covered by the tapestry which contains the Torah scrolls. In front of that is a small podium at the ground level where the prayers are recited, and towards the back is the bimah, the platform from which the Torah scrolls are read.

There was one part of the layout of the synagogue that really bothered me. I knew it was coming, I know about the tradition behind it, but it upset me. There is a partition that separates the men from the women called a mechitza. This is done for modesty reasons, but it was just so indicative of gender roles in this faith. You can see the partition in the photograph, and if you'll notice, everything of importance is on the men's side: the ark, the podium where they say prayers, the bimah, etc. and only men participate in the ceremonies. The women seemed to be literally pushed to the side almost as an afterthought. I understand this is a long standing tradition in Judaism and is part of their culture. But it was also part of our culture to keep women in the home and not to speak her mind. Some traditions have no place in the 21st century.

Overall, the atmosphere was traditional, but not as inspiring as the Reform synagogue.

The People:

The people were quite interesting. It was like something out of a movie or cliche, the men were dressed alike in the traditional garb you associate with Orthodox Jews, the black slacks, white dress shirts, black yarmulkes, the black, wide brimmed hats, beards, etc. In the synagogue, many of the men wore prayer shawls and swayed back and forth as they prayed.

I didn't really get a chance to talk with any of the women, only the men. They were all happy to have us there to observe them. I didn't feel like any of them were uncomfortable that we were there. A few asked if I had been to a synagogue before, when I explained I had, some seemed a little put off that it had been a Reform synagogue, others seemed happy and asked me a lot of questions saying some of their family or friends went to that synagogue.

Overall, I could tell that these people were very vested in their roots and traditions.

The Service:

The service was an endurance test. The members even acknowledged this afterwards with us. It was a 3 hour service all spoken in Hebrew and divided into 3 portions, morning prayers, Torah readings, and Haftarah (readings from other scriptures) with a sermon.

The first hour was nothing but a long prayer chanted by the rabbi with a few acapella songs in between. There was an English translation of the prayers in the book, but it was hard to follow along with as I never knew exactly where we were in the service.

The second hour had them bring the Torah scrolls around, and everyone touched either a book or their shawls to the scrolls then kissed the book or shawl. They then did 7 readings from the Torah scrolls.

After that there was a reading from Ezekiel and a sermon, which I will cover in "The Message" section.

There was no passion or emotion in the service like there was in the Reform service. The rabbi flew through the prayers, at times sounding like a cattle auctioneer. I got the strong feeling from them that they were doing this almost exclusively out of obligation and tradition, and not with any real meaning behind it.

Overall, the service was very long, I was lost much of the time, and quite monotonous and boring.

The Message:

The readings from the Torah were translated for me in the book into English. The verses were some of my least favorite in scripture. Verses talking about how if the daughter of a priest was found to have committed sexual sin, she should be burned alive and how those with physical defects are unworthy to be priests.

They somehow spun that into something positive. The rabbi stated in his sermon that the real message behind this is that even the worst of human traits can be used for positive things. He told a story about a family that was having issues with their son. He didn't go into many of the issues, but he said that the boy was in a treatment retreat and meeting with therapists. The boy told his parents that he wanted nothing to do with them if they didn't accept him as he was and he wasn't going to live the Orthodox life. His parents said he was out, but the Rabbi said that the family must absolutely accept their son because God gave him to them and human beings are imperfect paintings, but it is our imperfection that makes us beautiful.

As the service was ending, he read a poem about how we can learn virtues from even the thief. The thief is patient, the thief observes, the thief is thoughtful, but most of all, if the thief fails, he will try and try again.

The message was awesome, and I would love to see more messages like that from the pulpit in more religious communities.

Overall Experience:

This service was a learning experience, but it's not something I would do again. It was quite boring, the separation of the women bothered me a lot more than I expected, and it was just too strict and harsh. I loved the message, but there was a lot missing from it for me.

Additional Notes:

I am working on a few special projects which has been part of the reason the blog hasn't been as consistent. I will make a double effort to return to the normal schedule.

I am hoping you will be excited by some of the special blog entries coming up.

Until next time, peace be with you.