Sunday, June 29, 2014

Meet me at Calvary Baptist Church, part of the Southern Baptist Convention

Today I went to Calvary Baptist Church, a church here in Ogden which is part of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention has nearly 16 million members nationwide making it the second largest church in the United States after the Roman Catholic Church, the largest Protestant church in the country, and the largest Baptist church in the world. Chances are, when Baptists come to your mind, you're thinking of the Southern Baptists. There are many other Baptist groups and independent Baptist organizations, but none with the numbers, outreach, or political clout of the Southern Baptist Convention. So who are the Southern Baptists? Where do they come from? What do they believe?

The origins of the Southern Baptist Convention actually stem from our country's more controversial past. It began when the Baptist churches from the Southern United States decided to split with those from the Northern United States as the North refused to ordain missionaries who were slave owners. The Southern Baptist Convention maintained a theology that promoted slavery and later racial segregation. This caused many black Baptists to split off and form their own groups, the largest of which today is the National Baptist Convention, USA.

Starting in the second half of the 20th century, the Southern Baptist Convention began moving away from its roots in race and segregation and began actively engaging minorities to bring them into the group. Today, the church has no official racial element to it, and the current president of the organization is a black man.

Beliefs of the Southern Baptist Convention:
  • The Southern Baptist Convention is a Protestant church that is Evangelical. This means that they believe that the Bible is the Word of God, the sole guide on matters of faith and doctrine, that members are to be born again in the Spirit by accepting Jesus as their Savior, and that they have a personal relationship with Jesus.
  • The Bible is the source of their creeds and their creeds can be altered based on what the Bible teaches.
  • Each person is accountable to God alone and nobody else is accountable for another person's salvation.
  • Priesthood of all believers. In other words, there is no middle man between God and humanity, each person can access God fully on their own.
  • Mankind is a fallen creature devoid of good. All people are guilty under God's Law and deserve God's wrath and punishment in eternal Hell.
  • Salvation from the wrath of God is by the grace of God through faith alone. Works cannot save.
  • Salvation is through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus's atonement paid for the sins of mankind.
  • Belief in the Trinity.
  • Belief that baptism is required as an act of obedience to God's Word, and a symbol of dying to your own life and rising new in Christ. Baptism must be done by full immersion only by those old enough to accept Jesus as their Savior.
  • Practice the Lord's Supper to remember the sacrifice of Jesus and draw closer to him. This act is simply a memorial and the bread and wine (grape juice) have no actual presence of Jesus within them but are symbolic of the grace he provides.
  • Autonomy of the local church. This means that each church in the Southern Baptist Convention is self governing and does not have to answer to a hierarchy. The convention exists to unify congregations with other similar congregations.
  • The Southern Baptist Convention leans towards conservative politics and traditional gender roles. Homosexuality, abortion, sex before marriage, polyamory, pornography, and extra-marital affairs are condemned. Women are not ordained, though it is said they belong to the priesthood of all believers.
So, what was Calvary Baptist Church like?


Calvary Baptist Church is tucked away in an unassuming part of downtown Ogden. It's a red brick building that's fairly traditional with some modern aspects, particularly the steeple and the relief sculpture over the entrance of the church.

The interior of the church was interesting to me because it was almost exactly how I envisioned it to be. I've never gone into a new church and had it match my preconceived image of what it would look like until today. That's always been part of the fun of this journey is seeing how reality compares with what's in my head.

The interior was a white bricked room with wooden pews and a slight partition that separated the main part of the chapel from the entry way. The walls had no windows except for a couple of smaller windows way up at the top of the building behind the sanctuary, which were covered by closed, vertical blinds.

The central focus of the room was the pulpit which ha a small table in front of it that had a simple wooden cross, a Bible opened in front of it, and two collection plates. Along the front of the table was a table runner that said, "Jesus lives forever."

Overall, the atmosphere was, as I stated, exactly what I expected: simple, centered on a pulpit with the Bible out on display, and unassuming.

The People:

The people were very nice. They all went out of their way to greet us and ask us questions. Most of them were elderly and white (a typical trend of most of the churches around here) though there were a couple younger families of different ethnicities. The congregation wasn't very large, only a couple dozen people at the very most including us. It's Summer, so the size of the congregation is bound to be smaller, but I don't get the impression this congregation is very big at all.

Overall, they seemed like nice people who had conviction in what they believed.

The Service:

The service was typical of churches with an Evangelical bend. It opened with a prelude of music played on a piano, followed by a prayer offered by a member of the congregation, then they welcomed everybody, including us as visitors. After that, a woman was asked to extend a greeting to everybody, she talked for a minute about how it's been 100 years since World War I began, which was very random and was not related to anything religious or spiritual any way. Just sort of some random trivia about World War I given just for fun.

Afterward, another hymn was sung accompanied by piano music. I have to say, the music was really simplistic and traditional and I wasn't familiar with any of them sung.

After the hymn, they said another prayer and took up a collection. Everybody then stood up and recited a scripture together from the Gospel of Luke. The pastor then went to the pulpit and began his sermon.

After the sermon, another hymn was sung, then a prayer offered, and the congregation recited Proverbs 3:5 in unison, "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding."

The service was very dry and focused on the sermon, as I've come to expect with most Evangelical churches. I do have to say that I liked that this church didn't rely on any kind of gimmick to attract members, but instead seemed more focused on its roots and what it taught. Compared to some other denominations of the same type, it is nice to see.

The Message:

The Gospel reading was from Like where Jesus asks Peter to tell him who people say he is. Peter replies that some say he is John the Baptist, Elijah, or another prophet. He then asks Peter who he thinks he is. Peter replies that he thinks Jesus is the Christ.

The sermon was really repetitive, with the pastor covering several points over and over again. I'm going to try to condense his message into a more reader friendly message than is in my notes.

Essentially, he said that people have different opinions about Jesus and these opinions can't all be right, we must only believe what God says about Jesus. The most important thing in life is to know the truth about Jesus. This is our assignment on this Earth. What God says about Jesus is all that matters, God gave us his Word (the scriptures), and his Word says that the scriptures are reliable. Therefore, we must believe what the Bible says about Jesus, and not other people's opinions about Jesus. We need to come to him and get saved.

There wasn't much more to the sermon than that, just the same points made again and again, sometimes with a little more detail added to them.

Overall, the sermon wasn't anything I wasn't expecting. I've heard all of this before many times in different churches and other moments in my life.

Overall Experience:

This is the only church I've been to so far that was exactly how I envisioned it to be, as though they pulled it straight from my imagination. That was surreal. Honestly, I don't have much to say about this group that I haven't said about similar groups in my previous blogs.

Additional Notes:

I'm really enjoying this experience, and I've decided I want to take it to the next level. Over the next couple weeks, I'm going to look into next year's project, which will be on similar lines. My goal for next year is to travel to every state and record (in film or written form I haven't decided) various religious experiences in other states. I will probably be turning to crowdfunding for this project.

Let me know your opinions and suggestions on this idea.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Types of Christianity

It occurs to me that I've mentioned several types of Christianity and some general terms that many may or may not be familiar with. So, I've decided to clear some of them up to help people reading my blog better understand.

There are three main branches of Christianity. In no particular order, they are:
  1. Orthodox Christianity
  2. Catholic Christianity
  3. Protestant Christianity
Orthodox Christianity: This includes two main branches, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Oriental Orthodoxy. Oriental Orthodoxy split from the rest of Christianity in the 5th century because they believed Christ had one complex nature instead of two natures (fully God and fully man) in one person.

Some churches that belong to Oriental Orthodoxy:
  • The Armenian Apostolic Church
  • The Coptic Orthodox Church
  • The Ethiopian Orthodox Church
  • The Syriac Orthodox Church
Eastern Orthodoxy split from Catholicism in the 11th century over political matters and doctrine matters such as the role of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity and church practices.

Some churches that belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church:
  • The Greek Orthodox Church
  • The Russian Orthodox Church
  • The Romanian Orthodox Church
  • The Orthodox Church in America
  • The Ukrainian Orthodox Church
  • The Latvian Orthodox Church
Catholic Christianity: Catholic Christianity split with the Eastern Orthodox in the 11th century and became the powerhouse of Europe for centuries. Today the Catholic Church is the largest religious sect in the world and in human history. This church includes members of the Roman Catholic Church as well as churches in full communion with Rome that are considered to be fully Catholic churches with no difference in doctrine but differences in tradition.

Some churches within the Catholic Church include:
  • The Roman Catholic Church (by far the largest church and mother church of the Catholic Church)
  • The Maronite Catholic Church
  • The Russian Greek Catholic Church
  • The Greek Byzantine Catholic Church
Other churches have split from the Catholic Church while maintaining Catholic ceremony, priesthood, and dogma. These are still considered Catholic churches, though they are not in communion with Rome.

Some churches that are not part of the Catholic Church, but still considered to be Catholic churches:
  • The Polish Catholic Church
  • The American Catholic Church
  • The various Old Catholic churches
  • The Liberal Catholic Church
Protestant Christianity: Protestants are members of churches that sought to reform the Catholic Church in the 16th century and onward. Most Christian denominations in the US are Protestant and it is a wide umbrella of churches. Basically, to be Protestant you must be a Christian church that split from the Catholic Church or a church that split off from the Catholic Church, believe in the Trinity, and accept the Bible as the Word of God and sole authority on matters of faith. The name itself reflects their origins, Protestant = one who protests the Catholic faith.

Some churches considered to be Protestant:
  • Lutheran churches
  • Anglican churches (Church of England, Episcopal Church USA, etc.)
  • Presbyterian churches
  • Methodist churches
  • Congregationalist churches
  • Most non-denominational churches
  • Baptist churches
  • The Moravian Church
  • The Amish
  • Mennonite churches
  • Most Pentecostal churches

In addition to all of this, in the Protestant churches, there are a few other terms that are thrown around that need to be explained, as it can be very confusing. A lot of churches may fall into two or more of the following definitions, so it's possible for a church or a person to be one or many of these things.

Mainline Christianity: The historical churches of the Protestant Reformation and their immediate child churches. These include: Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, which were the majority churches in the United States up until the later portion of the 20th century.

Evangelical Christianity: Christians who accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, believe exclusively in the Bible as the only authority in matters of faith, believe they have a personal relationship with Jesus, and believe they have been born again in the Spirit after praying to God to save them.

Fundamentalist Christianity: Christians who believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God without error in its original forms and the only guide in life. They believe in taking a literal approach to reading scripture, meaning they believe that anything that does not clearly say it's a metaphor is literally true word for word.

Progressive Christianity: Christians who believe that the Bible is an inspired text and the Word of God, but must be interpreted critically and with modern historical eyes. Often take much of the Bible metaphorically and with belief that these were ancient people living in a different time who wrote the book and we must look at how they saw the world to understand what the texts mean. Often very inclusive and involved with outreach to other churches and other religions.

Charismatic Christianity: Christians who believe they are washed in the Holy Spirit and given spiritual gifts from it. The most familiar gift is speaking in tongues (essentially incoherent babbling done in a trance), but other gifts include prophecy, faith healing, etc.


Additionally, there are 2 major worship styles in Christianity. These terms originate with Anglican churches as there is a wide spectrum of ceremonial practice in those churches, but I feel the terms are relevant to Christian worship in general. The styles are:
  1. Liturgical, or High Church worship. 
  2. Low Church worship.
Liturgical or High Church worship: Characterized by highly structured ritual complete with special vestments that are to be worn by clergy, worship centered around an altar, chanting or traditional music, and possibly incense or bells.

Some churches with High Church worship are:
  • All Eastern Orthodox churches
  • All Oriental Orthodox churches
  • All Catholic churches
  • Many Anglican churches
  • Many Lutheran churches
Low Church worship: Characterized by an informal church service. It can take on many forms including traditional or contemporary hymns, extremely simple vestments or street clothes worn by clergy, worship is centered around reading from the Bible and a sermon. Things like incense, bells, candles, etc are generally frowned upon.

Examples of churches with Low Church worship:
  • All Baptist churches
  • All Pentecostal churches
  • Most Evangelical churches
  • Most Presbyterian churches
  • Some Lutheran churches
  • Some Anglican churches
  • Some Methodist churches
Some churches fall somewhere between these two styles, and that worship is called Broad Church worship.

While there are other Christian groups outside of these, these are what are historically considered to be Christianity. Other groups do believe that Jesus was the messiah, but are considered outside the historical creeds of Christianity for several reasons. These groups usually object to not being considered Christian and do consider themselves to be Christians, sometimes consider themselves to be the only true Christians.

Some groups generally considered to be outside of Christianity but consider themselves to be Christians:
  • Oneness Pentecostals, as they deny the doctrine of the Trinity.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses, as they deny the Trinity and divinity of Jesus.
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), as they deny the Trinity, believe in multiple gods, and have additional scriptures to the Bible.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Elim Lutheran Church, or Christianity: The Rock Opera

Today, I attended Elim Lutheran Church in Ogden, part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The ELCA is the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States with over 3 million members nationwide, and is in full communion with the Lutheran World Federation, an international union of Lutheran churches containing more than 70 million members worldwide.

The ELCA is a mainline Protestant church (meaning it is a church that comes directly from the Protestant Reformation and not from the Evangelical or Charismatic movements). The Church, obviously, comes from the Lutheran tradition, dating back to Martin Luther's challenging of the Catholic Church in the 16th century.

The ELCA allows a broad spectrum of belief and practices within their church. As a whole, the church tends to be more liberal than other branches of Lutheranism in America; however, there are conservative factions within the Church.

Generally agreed upon beliefs and practices are:
  • Belief in the Trinity.
  • Belief that Jesus is the incarnation of the second member of the Trinity, and the Son of God.
  • Belief that mankind is justified (saved) by God's grace alone through faith in him.
  • Belief that the Bible alone contains all that is necessary for the salvation of mankind, and are the sole authority on matters of faith and doctrine.
  • They do not tend to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, but instead approach it through scholarly research.
  • Belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. (That the body and blood of Jesus is present in the bread and wine at communion, though the mechanism for this isn't explained. Transubstantiation is rejected.)
  • Generally, they do not deny evolution, though a minority do.
  • Baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace practiced on both adults and infants.
  • Ordination of women. (Some object to this matter; however, the Church has no restriction on the ordination of women and the current presiding bishop of the Church is a woman.)
  • On social issues, the Church tends to lean more towards the moderate to liberal side. Most believe:
    • Abortion should be legal in most circumstances.
    • Homosexuality should not be condemned. (Officially LGBT members may become clergy and most support same-sex marriage.)
    • Support of women's rights, including reproductive rights.
    • Helping the less fortunate out financially.
So how was my visit to Elim Lutheran Church?


I was very happy to find out that during the summer months, they worship outdoors. So, before I get to the worship environment I did encounter, let me show you what their chapel looks like, and where worship is held most of the year:

The chapel, very traditional in style and quite beautiful in my opinion with it's lovely stained glass, especially this window over the back of the sanctuary.

This is a stained glass widow of Christ the King which is the focal point of this chapel.

The pulpit and baptistery. Which includes the pulpit from which the scriptures are read, the baptismal font, and the processional cross.

And finally, below is the high altar, which is a very simple and yet traditional altar.

That being said, the service we had was outside with some lawn chairs set up in a semicircle around a temporary altar, which was a simple wooden structure with no special adornments other than a cross and a couple vases of flowers.

It was a great day for it to be outside, it was pleasantly warm, but not unbearably hot, lovely bit of cloud cover, and a slight breeze. I love church services held outside. There's just something relaxing about it.

Overall, the atmosphere for the service and the atmosphere of the church building itself were both wonderful.

The People:

This was a very friendly bunch of people. We got out of the car and immediately people swarmed to greet us. They told us to grab coffee and join them, and said if we just wanted to grab coffee, we could do that too.

The pastor was a sweet lady who reminded me rather of an elementary school teacher I had.

I have nothing but positive things to say about the people at this congregation, they were very nice and welcoming.

The Service:

The service was an interesting blend of old and new. The music was sort of contemporary, some of it reminded me of old school Motown music. Other songs sounded more like contemporary Christian music. The service started with a contemporary Christian hymn followed by a few announcements and a confession of sin. All similar to the beginning of a Catholic Mass, but no procession and a more modern feel.

Afterward was another hymn and then the three scripture readings. Two of the three readings are some of the most fascinating scriptures in all of the Christian canon to me. Jeremiah 20: 7-13, commonly called Jeremiah's lamentation or Jeremiah's complaint. The first part of the reading in most English translation reads:

"You have deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived. You overpowered me and prevailed." (New International Version)

This is interesting and I have yet to read a mainstream translation of this text that doesn't read this way. Today's reading was no exception. However, this is watered down version of the text and doesn't imply the full gravity of the passage. The text in English would better read this way, according to most biblical scholars:

"You have seduced me, Yahweh, and I was raped. You overpowered me and you have prevailed."

In this text, Jeremiah laments his condition and what God has done to him. It is easy to see in any translation, yet what the text actually says in its original language truly drives home how desperate Jeremiah's encounter with God feels.

The second reading was Matthew 10: 24-39, which has one of the most infamous sayings of Jesus:

"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against mother in law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever loves son and daughter more than me is not worthy of me." (English Standard Version)

There was a sermon afterward that I was hoping would talk about these passages in depth. We'll come back to that in "The Message" section.

After the sermon, there was a collection taken up and a few more hymns were sung. They then did the prayers of the people, which followed a similar formula to the Catholic model, saying prayer for the community, then the people responding, "Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer." Then a microphone was passed around to anyone who had a special prayer intention. After each intention, they repeated the same response.

They then moved to the communion portion of the celebration. Compared to a Catholic Mass or even an Episcopalian Eucharist service, it was very short and to the point. The pastor just got up to the table, said the Words of Institution (a short recitation of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper) and then the congregation said the Lord's Prayer together. After that people lined up and took a small piece of bread from the pastor and a thimble sized cup of either grape juice or wine from the altar server.

Afterward, there was a post-communion prayer, a hymn, and then a blessing by the pastor.

Overall, the service was very modern, but still followed a traditional structure and felt connected with the past, though it was reimagined for our time.

The Message:

As I stated above, I was really hoping the sermon would go in depth on these two scripture passages which present real challenges to the average church goer. On one hand, you have one of the most celebrate prophets of the Old Testament lamenting about how unfair God and his calling are, even going so far in the text as to say he rapes him, or if you're going to go with the watered down reading of it, that he deceives him. Jeremiah here is in a moment of pure desperation and feels completely alone unable to trust anyone, even his God.

On the other hand, you have Jesus saying he's not a peacemaker, but has come to create war, even within our own families. Jesus says we're to love him even more than our own families.

On a side note, how do modern Christians get the family values movement out of the Bible? There aren't very many examples of good families in the Old Testament; Jesus tells his disciples that he's going to create war within their families; encourages them to leave their obligations, family included, and follow him; and Paul recommends that Christians be celibate if possible, unless they're so overcome with the weakness of lust that they can't take it and have to get married to soothe that temptation.

I was really hoping she'd touch on this, but most of the sermon was instead on Vacation Bible School which ended for the children last week. She also said that the message of the scriptures was that sometimes we'll be rejected by people for loving Jesus and sometimes things will get rough, but that's okay, God is always there for us, so don't drown in despair.

I liked the message of not drowning in despair, and I loved how she said, "Oh, I truly hope nobody here is drowning in despair. Fear can lead us to many bad things. We can fall into the wrong crowd hoping for protection or acceptance. But do not be afraid, for God counts the hairs on your head and not a sparrow falls without his notice." I liked the message because positive messages like this in a dark world are comforting.

On the other hand, there are some major problems in this world that putting a bandaid of happiness and comfort over is insufficient. There are countless people who needlessly suffer, it's not right, it's not enough to say that it's part of God's plan and that God loves them. We need to actively get off our asses and say it's not okay, it's not a divine mandate that these people suffer for no reason at all, and help them.

She then had us all write down a fear or burden of ours. She then had the kids come up and sing a song they sang from Vacation Bible School. The song sounded like it came straight out of a rock opera, hence my title for this blog. In fact, most of the contemporary music they played sounded like it would be perfectly in place in a rock opera. Not that I'm complaining. It was lively and fun. But it was delightfully awkward to watch these kids up there making fools out of themselves with this song. I enjoyed it very much and felt it was the best part of the service.

At the end of the song, the kids crumpled up their burdens and cast them away. Everyone in the congregation did as well. It was a symbol of casting your burdens on Jesus. While I don't believe in Jesus, I think this is a positive exercise. We do occasionally need to unburden ourselves and it's easier to deal with your problems if you share them with others. There is healing in just saying your burdens out loud and symbolically casting them away. I liked this part. Will it resolve your actual issue? No, but it gets your mind in the right mindset to start letting it bother you less.

Overall, the message was a watered down version of what I wanted, didn't really address the disturbing nature of the readings, but was still a good sermon with a practical message about daily life.

Overall Experience:

This was a very happy go lucky bunch with a message of love and charity in their hearts. In fact, they were talking about how they had recently raised enough money for a fish farm for an impoverished community somewhere in the world to help feed them and were on their way to helping getting enough water purification tablets for them as well. I thought that was a good gesture, and I want to hear about more projects like that at more churches.

Between the friendliness, worship service, and general attitude of the people there, I can definitely see what inspires Garrison Keillor. I enjoyed my time with the Lutherans of Elim Lutheran Church and would go back just to say, "Hello," sometime.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

An offering to the Earth Mother for Solstice

Today, I was honored to witness a Yoruba Summer Solstice ceremony. My friend invited me and I want to say thank you for this enriching experience. Let's get started.


The ceremony was held in the woods behind Rainbow Gardens in Ogden. It was lovely and natural with a dirt path leading to the ceremonial location. Around the ceremonial location were chalk crosses at the four cardinal points of the compass. There were chairs set up for the guests, and a hole dug in the earth with colors around it. It was explained to me that there is a ceremony to open the hole and they ask permission of the nature spirits before doing so and surround it with colored powders all made of organic materials. They explained that this represents both one of the gods of their tradition who is envisioned as a rainbow serpent coiled around the earth, and as a symbol of protection against any malicious forces that would come forth from the ground.

There wasn't much more to the atmosphere than this. No candles, no images of the deity, just the earth opened up ready to receive the offerings presented to it.

I loved that it was outdoors and I loved the symbolism of breaking open the earth and offering to it directly.

The People:

I didn't interact with many people there really except for my friend and the priest. The priest was very kind to me and answered a lot of questions. He was dressed in lovely green robes and had on several necklaces, one made of sea shells and one that had his title written on it, "Baba Aworo Oshun" on it.

There was also the priest's partner assisted in parts of the ceremony as did another woman who translated some parts of the ceremony in English.

The rest of the people were quite and didn't interact much with us, though I didn't sense any hostility or suspicion from them.

Overall, it was a nice, quite crowd, not many of us there.

The Ceremony:

I am deviating a bit from the normal structure as there was no sermon or traditional service like in Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, Islam). Instead, it was an offering ceremony done almost exclusively in the Yoruba Language, though some parts sounded like Portuguese or possibly Spanish. The first part had some translation into English, but the rest was indiscernible to me. So, I will only be talking about the ceremony.

First off, a little background on the ceremony. The Summer Solstice is the New Year for people of this tradition. On this day, it's traditional to offer a cow as a sacrifice to the Earth, then the cow is to be cooked and eaten by the whole community. In countries like ours, where animal sacrifice is not legal, they instead make other offerings.

The ceremony started with the priest ringing a bell and honoring the spirits of nature. He told me that normally a drum is used, but their drummer had another commitment, so they used the bell instead. He honored the four corners: North, South, East, and West; the Sun, the water, the Earth, the Orishas, etc. After that, he and the two helping with him went to the chalk crosses marking the four corners and either blessed or offered them water and cornmeal while chanting something in Yoruba.

After that, offerings were made into the hole that was dug. The offerings were cakes made of cornmeal and another set of cakes. For the life of me I can't remember what those were made of.

He then offered water into the hole and cornmeal. After that, he took a swig of gin and blew it into the hole as an offering. I'm not certain the full symbolism of this gesture, but it was kind of cool to see.

There was a bowl containing a bunch of kola nuts soaking in water. He took one of the nuts out of the water, then chanted something over it, then touched his head and heart with it. He then came around and touched the head and chest of everyone present with it while saying something in Yoruba. He came back and offered the nut into the hole.

They then passed out kola nuts to all of us telling us to speak our hopes and wishes into the nut. He did the same and then split the nut open and scryed his own fortune from the nut. He then had everyone come up one at a time to split the nut open and to offer them advice that he said the spirits told him based on what was said into the nut.

While he was reading for other people, I took a picture of my nut.

The priest's advice to me based on the reading was really interesting and not what I expected to hear. After he was done reading, he had me blow on the nut, then toss it into the hole as an offering.

Once the readings were over, we were told that the ceremony was to be closed, but that the closing was sacred and not to be seen by outsiders. So those of us not in the Tradition left and that was that.

Overall Experience:

This was a very moving ceremony. It was all about honoring the Earth and experiencing a connection with everything around you. The idea that religions like this, particularly Voodoo and Santeria (which is derived from Yoruba), are demonized and made to be cheap horror tricks actually upsets me now. I saw nothing even remotely disturbing or upsetting about this ceremony. Do I believe in these things? No. But of all the types of spirituality out there, these ones are pretty benign.

There is nothing to fear from these faiths. In fact, we should admire them. These are traditions that testify of a human spirit that won't be crushed. A culture and and people who have not let their traditions die under the hands of malicious slave owners, attempts to assimilate them into a foreign culture, or the judgmental eye of a society that fears their practices. This is a testament to how strong and how beautiful we can be. To condemn it as some sort of collection of parlor tricks done to harm people and bring about evil is abhorrent.

I loved Yoruba and would like to see more of it sometime.

Additional Notes:

Because of how busy of a week it has been, I haven't had a chance to do a pre-service blog for where I'm going tomorrow. So I will combine both blogs about the church I am visiting into one blog. I will be visiting Elim Lutheran Church, part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Summer Solstice with those of the Yoruba Tradition

This Friday, I've been invited to join in a Summer Solstice ceremony with the Yoruba Tradition. Most of you have probably never heard of this faith tradition. It's largely unheard of due to another system with a similar type of origin getting most of the attention: Vodou (commonly called Voodoo).

Yoruba is not Vodou, and the two systems come from different origins, but do have overlap with each other in some fundamental ways:
  • Both traditions come from the African Diaspora, that is, Africans who were brought (mostly, if not exclusively, by force) to the West, bringing with them their tribal beliefs. Vodou originated in Ghana, Yoruba in Nigeria, and both traditions incorporated elements from the New World into their faiths.
  • Both traditions believe in a distant, supreme deity which is incomprehensible, outside of gender, the first, the state of existence itself, the ultimate. Vodou calles it Bondye (Good God), Yoruba calls it Olodumare (Ruler of Heaven). Generally, this being is not directly interacted with by humans.
  • Because this supreme deity is generally unreachable to humans, practitioners of Vodou and Yoruba work with lower gods that are manifestations of natural energies. In Vodou, these are called Loa, in Yoruba, they are called Oshiras.
  • Both traditions believe they work with these deities to alter conditions in their own lives and the world at large.
Some things about Yoruba:
  • Yoruba believes in reincarnation.
  • Yoruba has various schools of thought that differ in teachings, practice, and culture.
  • Much of their practice is handed down in traditional teaching and not taught in a public forum.
  • Some of the primary Oshiras (deities) are:
    • Orunmila: The Grand Priest, keeper of knowledge, healer of illness.
    • Esu: The Adversary or Trickster responsible for misfortune, but also the messenger, and the force between positive and negative.
    • Ogun: Lord of metal.
    • Yemoja: Mother of Water and nurturer.
    • Oshun: Lady of grace, beauty, and sensuality.
    • Shango: Lord of Virility.
    • Oya: Lady of the Tempest and Guardian of the Cemetery.
I'm not sure what it will be like as I have nothing to truly compare it to in my spiritual past. I'm just going to go in with an open mind ready to learn and get the full experience. I'm honored to have been invited, and will let you guys know how it goes.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Monday, June 16, 2014

"God, humble me to the dust," my Sunday at Berean Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Today, I attended Berean Orthodox Presbyterian Church. How was my experience with the hardcore, traditional Calvinists? Interesting.


The church meets in the United Church of Christ building in Ogden as I mentioned before hand, as evidenced by this sign:

The outside of the church is very 60's or 70's modern and accented by a giant cross in the church yard.

The inside of the church has a small chapel that is octagonal in shape and the sanctuary was a very simple design with rock work on the walls and a simple altar and pulpit.

Overall, very homey and simple atmosphere that was warm and inviting.

The People:

The people were interesting. Not a very diverse congregation, I believe everyone there was white and the average age was above 50. Everyone in the congregation was very kind to me. Pretty much every member of the congregation came up and introduced themselves to me, and joked with me a little bit.

After the service, the pastor came and talked to me outside the building. There was a loud crow and he told me how he used to shoot crows with his BB gun when he was a kid and how he wished he had one for that crow. He then told me how he hoped the Lord spoke to me in the sermon and that he can be rather blunt, as you will see in "The Message" section.

Virtually everyone invited me back, and it was an interesting group of people. In general, they were very nice.

The Service:

The service was a simple service starting with a hymn, then an opening prayer, then they had announcements, read from their church's Confession of Faith. Afterward, they recited the 10 Commandments (what people traditionally refer to as the 10 Commandments, but that's a topic for another time) and the 2 Great Commandments Jesus gave. After that, they sang another hymn and read from 1st Corinthians before he got into his sermon. More on that in "The Message" section.

After the sermon, there was another hymn, then a blessing and dismissal.

Overall, it was a very simple service with no frills or ceremony. It was focused exclusively on preaching and music.

The Message:

This was the bulk of the service. There was a formalized sermon, which the pastor admitted he was winging because his computer had experienced issues and he couldn't get the sermon off it in time. But, even though there was a formal sermon, the message(s) were repeated many times throughout the entire service.

Because there wasn't very much structure on the sermon, I will instead do bullet points of some of the quotes that best demonstrate what the message was:

  • In relation to teachings, "If it's new, it ain't true."
  • "If there are contradictions in scripture, it's not an error in the Word, it's an error in our understanding."
  • "There can be no private interpretation of scripture, and no personal revelation."
  • "Worship isn't about you, it's about pleasing the Sovereign Lord."
  • "We must love and FEAR God. A good dose of fear is healthy."
  • "We live for Him (God), not ourselves."
  • "Fear of God is the goal of the Gospel."
  • "Salvation is an ongoing process, not a once in a lifetime moment." In other words, they do not believe once saved always saved.
  • "The grace of God is given, not claimed."
  • "No person is worthy of being on a pedestal," and "Don't think too highly of yourself."
  • "Test everything against the scriptures."
  • "Submit to the elders of the Church." This was in regards to questions or if you were making a big decision in life. Basically, consult with them and make sure what you're doing is godly. "If the elders are corrupt, the scriptures will tell you."
  • He said a powerful prayer to utter would be, "God, humble me to the dust -- make me usable."
  • "God will never let you down."
Overall, the message felt like a barrage of mental abuse. You were completely and utterly evil and inadequate without God. He stated at one point, "Man is wicked, there is not even an island of goodness in mankind." This is a horrible message, and to sit around telling people they are horrible, there's a defect with them and you have the solution, but they must submit entirely to your authority is pretty disturbing. It amazed me how everyone was smiling and taking all of this in like it was pleasant. I can only imagine what hearing something like that every week, and believing it would be like.

Overall Experience:

This was pretty much what I expected from hardcore Calvinists, lots of Hell fire and damnation mixed with messages of living life to please God, but it was still rather uncomfortable to see acted out in person. I would definitely not go back for  a round two.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Going to see the Orthodox Presbyterians

This will be the third Presbyterian church I've been to during this blog expedition. All branches of Christianity (and religion in general) have a spectrum of belief from conservative to liberal, orthodox to modern. Presbyterianism is no exception. The Presbyterian churches I previously attended were the Presbyterian Church USA and the Japanese Christian Church. Both of them are more theologically modern and, especially on the part of the Presbyterian Church USA I visited, more theologically liberal.

This week; however, I will be attending the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church split from the Presbyterian Church USA in the 1930's over what it saw as an alarming trend towards modernism. As the name implies, they seek to adhere to the traditional, conservative doctrines of Presbyterianism. These include:
  • The Bible is the Word of God, completely free from error and trustworthy in all matters of doctrine and practice.
  • The Bible is the only source of revelation of God.
  • Belief in the Trinity.
  • Total sovereignty of God, nothing is beyond his control or will.
  • Mankind is totally depraved by nature, dead in sin due to Adam's transgression.
  • Christ is fully God and fully man, incarnated through the Virgin Mary.
  • Christ's atonement frees man from the burden of sin and fills mankind with God's redeeming grace.
  • Christ's atonement is limited, only for those God has predestined to save.
  • God predestined the fate of each person. Those whom God has chosen to save will end up in Heaven all others will end up in Hell.
  • Those whom God has predestined to save, the elect, will find his grace irresistible and seek to please him in their lives.
  • Those who believe seek to keep the Commandments because they love God, not in an attempt to earn salvation.
  • Ministry of the Church, particularly of preaching and the sacraments of baptism (both adult and infant) and the Lord's Supper (in which Christ's body and blood is spiritually present among believers).
Additionally, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church generally espouses conservative social values and practices:
  • Prescribed gender roles for men and women.
  • Condemnation of homosexuality.
  • Condemnation of abortion except in the case of the mother's life being in jeopardy.
  • Belief the Roman Catholic Church is in extreme error in doctrine and practice.
  • Barrier method and rhythm method birth control are allowed, while other methods such as morning after pills or IUD's are considered sinful as fertilization may have happened at that time.
  • No sex outside of marriage.
  • Communion for only those who are Christians in good standing with their church and of a similar understanding of God's word.
  • Belief in creationism and denial of evolution.
The church that I'm attending is Berean Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The interesting thing about them is that they do not have a permanent building. Instead, they meet in the chapel of the United Church of Christ here in Ogden. I find this an interesting pairing as the Orthodox Presbyterians are extremely traditional and are theologically conservative, whereas the United Church of Christ is what is referred to as Progressive Christianity which seeks a modern interpretation of scripture, theology, and tradition. I have already covered the United Church of Christ, in fact, it was my very first blog. I may stay for both services just to enjoy the diversity of the Christian spectrum a bit.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sunday at Washington Heights Church

Sorry for the delay in getting this up. I started a new work schedule this week and I'm still adjusting to it. This past Sunday, I went to Washington Heights Church, which is an Evangelical church of the Baptist tradition. It is officially a member of the Conservative Baptist Association.

What was it like?


I went to this church 10 years ago when a friend of mine from school invited me to it. A lot has changed in 10 years. First off, the building(s) are completely different. When I went the first time, it was a huge building with a chapel that had stadium seating and a stage in the center and classrooms off the main chapel. It was big and reminded me of the churches you see on TV with the various televangelists.

Now, there are three buildings, one appears to be a children's chapel/Sunday school, another that is, what appears to be classrooms and a small coffee shop. This building had a really cool design in the bricks of a Jesus fish.

Sandwiched between these two buildings is the main chapel. Unlike the grand chapel that used to stand there, it's now a much smaller chapel, no stadium seating, a stage that now looks like a concert stage, all together, it no longer had the chapel feel of the original, but now looks like a Christian rock arena.

I preferred the old building. It was very beautiful and, while modern, still felt like a chapel and a church. This building just felt like it was trying to be some other church now, like Alpine or the Genesis Project. I feel like the community lost something it had once had and replaced it with something trying to be something else.

In all, the atmosphere was fine, it was modern and cool, but it wasn't what it once was in its glory days.

The People:

The people here were very friendly, and there were a lot of them ranging in age from elderly to youth. There was a coffee bar set up with some decent coffee. Several people came up and introduced themselves before and after the service. One was an usher, one was a nice young lady who told us to take as many cookies as we wanted from the coffee bar and joked around a bit about it. After the service, a group of people came up to us and introduced themselves and asked a number of questions.

In all, they were very friendly and seemed very sincere in wanting to get to know us.

The Service:

Nothing exceptionally remarkable about the service other than on the chairs were business cards that said, "I am Jesus." That's right, this church has business cards for Jesus. It started with a hymn, which was a standard Christian rock hymn.

After the hymn, they had communion. They said a prayer over the bread and grape juice, then the ushers passed trays around that had small cups of grape juice lined on them and small crackers in the center of the tray. Everyone took one of each and waited to take them all together.

After that, there was another hymn and then a sermon.

After the sermon, there was a video featuring a bunch of children. I'm not entirely sure what this video was about, but I could tell they were asking money for some kind of education program for children. The way it was framed, it sounded like the children's salvation depended on this program. I found that quite interesting, and I'm not sure how I feel about it.

The Message:

The sermon was on the story of Jesus among the teachers in the Temple. The story basically goes that when Jesus was 12, he and his family went to the Temple in Jerusalem for Passover, and Mary and Joseph left without Jesus and didn't realize it. When they come back, Jesus tells them that they should have expected him to be in his father's house.

The person giving the sermon said that this story shows us that Jesus doesn't fit into our boxes and that he's a confusing figure.

He then talked about how Judaism doesn't have a concept of God as Father like Christianity has and only sees him as a father of their nation. This is entirely untrue. Jews have the same emphasis on God as their father as Christians do. Christians place more emphasis on it in many ways, but the concept nevertheless is present and strong in Judaism.

There's this trend among Evangelical Christians in the US to talk about Judaism extensively. While I'm happy that Christians are exploring their Jewish roots, as there should be a lot more of that, I feel the methodology of this often, but not always, misses the mark. Christians don't tend to approach Judaism as its own complete religion with its own rich heritage completely independent of Christian dogma, but as the prequel to Jesus. As such, they often get things wrong about Judaism by trying to project Jesus onto every aspect of it. Jesus was molded by Judaism, not the other way around. Can you go back and reinterpret the Jewish stories and scriptures to fit the Jesus narrative, yes, Christians have done it for centuries. But in doing so, you miss the entire point of these stories in their original form and what they have taught Jews for thousands of years.

To put it in better perspective, Islam comes from the same tradition as Judaism and Christianity and shares common stories with them. If Muslims started to interpret Christian scripture their own way to prove that Christianity was all along pointing to Muhammad, Christians would probably feel a little outraged. This is the same thing that Christianity does to Judaism when it doesn't respect Judaism as a whole tradition with its own merits.

He then talked about how Jesus confused Mary and Joseph with this story and that they didn't understand what he meant. He then explained that Jesus often acted exactly contrary to how people expected him to. He also explains that Jesus and the concept of God itself can be very disturbing and hard to deal with.

He mentioned that bad things happen to good people and to think that if you believe in God and live well that nothing bad will happen to you is foolish, yet many seem to think that's how it will be. He mentioned several tragedies that befell some Christians who did missionary work in Africa as an example. I was liking where this was going as I often think modern Christianity overlooks the hard questions and he was at least touching on them. Then he dropped the ball at the end by saying, just have faith in God, and don't worry about it. I will say though, that at least he was addressing that there is a darker side of Christianity and exposing people to it and opening up the conversation a bit.

Overall, not a bad sermon, in spite its flaws.

Overall Experience:

Overall, I miss the old Washington Heights Church and felt this current incarnation was basically trying to be like a bunch of newer churches in the area. That being said, it wasn't an unpleasant experience, just deja vu.

Additional Notes:

There won't be a church this upcoming week as I will be attending the Utah Pride Festival and it is also a friend's birthday on Sunday. But don't worry, there will be another blog coming your way very soon. I have a few good groups lined up. Also, expect some kind of video blog this week to fill the void.

Until next time, peace be with you.