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.

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