Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Sunday of Gospel music and kind people

This past Sunday, I went to Embry Chapel here in Ogden, part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), a historically black church.

A little background on the AME. Like virtually all historically black churches, it was founded because of the uncomfortable subject of race. The white Methodists of the time were discriminatory against black people within the Church, segregating congregations, limiting the involvement of black members of the clergy, either by separating black members in a different part of the church building, or forcing them into separate congregations completely.

Several black clergymen founded the AME as a place where black Methodists could worship without discrimination and fully participate in the life of the Church.

The doctrine of the AME is Methodist. Methodists come out of further reformation of the Angilcans, started by John Wesley, bringing Christianity to more of a practical everyday experience, with more focus on preaching and being workable for the poor and everyday person.

The AME is a Protestant church and has some of the core beliefs:

  • Belief in the Trinity, one God in three persons.
  • Belief Jesus is the Messiah and second person of the Trinity, fully God and fully man.
  • Mankind is inclined by Original Sin to a sinful nature.
  • Jesus died for the sins of mankind to deliver them back to the Father.
  • Mankind is forgiven by God's grace through faith alone, not by works.
  • The Bible contains all that is necessary for the salvation of mankind and is the final authority on matters of faith and practice.
  • Two sacraments are practiced: Baptism, which may be administered by pouring or immersion, and administered to both adults and children. Baptism is seen as an outward sign of an inward grace and regenerates the spirit. The other sacrament is Communion, in which Jesus's body and blood is present spiritually through faith.
  • Ministers may marry.
  • Both men and women may serve in the ministry.
  • No bar based on race to membership or ministry.
  • Focus on the poor and community well being.
  • Traditional views on human sexuality, including discouragement of homosexuality.
  • Episcopal structure of the Church (ruled by bishops).
So, what was the experience like?


The building itself is really simple. A very small, red bricked building in a less than desirable area of Ogden just up from the dog food factory. There are no frills to the exterior of the building. Just a simple sign and a cross.

The interior was a simple chapel with a pulpit in the center of it. Behind it were some music stands for the choir, to the left of them was an area for the band. Directly in front of the pulpit was the communion table and small baptismal font. On the wall behind the sanctuary was a cross with studded with light bulbs illuminating it for the whole congregation.

Overall, elegant, but simple decor inside gave this place a very homey feeling that I very much enjoyed.

The People:

I have to say, these, so far were the friendliest people I've encountered. We walked in and were instantly treated like family. People came over and introduced themselves to us, some hugged us, all said nice words. Every person in the congregation met and talked to us at some point. One man was nice enough to tell us that there were doughnuts in the other room and to help ourselves to them and some water before the service. Another woman talked to me about her work at the university I used to attend. Apparently she works with the Diversity Center there. It was nice to hear.

The congregation isn't diverse at all. In fact, my friend and I were the only people in the whole congregation who weren't black. But that didn't seem to matter to them at all. We were completely welcomed there.

While getting the doughnut and water from the other room, I noticed the church had several of their outreach programs up on the board. The programs included tutoring for K - 12 students, a food pantry, and HIV awareness and prevention courses.

Overall, nicest group of people I've ever met. I'd go back just to get to know more of them better.

The Service:

The service was much like I expected it to be. It began with a Gospel rendition of Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow, then a responsive call to worship. Afterward, they sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and a lady gave a very heartfelt prayer.

Afterward, there was another Gospel hymn sung, while the whole chapel clapped together to keep rhythm. Afterward there was a scripture reading about Joseph discovering Mary was with child and choosing to put her away in private rather than publicly disgrace her.

They then recited in unison the two great commandments given by Jesus: love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. This was followed by a Gospel rendition of the Gloria Patri, a short Catholic hymn praising the Trinity: "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen." This was followed by yet another Gospel song.

Afterward, there were a number of announcements, mostly doing with church activities and the activities of several other churches that members were invited to. They seem to have a strong interfaith focus, which I find nice. We were also asked to stand and introduce ourselves as guests. They found out we were former students of Weber State, and that we both had degrees in language. We were asked to speak a bit for them in our foreign tongues. They welcomed us as a group and made us feel awkward, just like a real family gathering.

They then had an altar call. Unlike other churches with an altar call, every single person in the congregation was asked to come up and kneel around the altar, which we did. That felt kind of awkward for me, but it was over quickly. Then they took up a collection while the choir sang another song.

After this, the pastor gave a sermon, more on that below. The congregation then recited the Apostles' Creed, and ended with a prayer.

Overall, the music was very upbeat and inspiring, and the structure was pretty seamless. It was quite a lovely service.

The Message:

The sermon was kind of all over the place. Part of it was similar to the Southern Baptist sermon I heard, in that the pastor said, "If you're wrong about Jesus, it doesn't matter what you're right about."

He then asked the famous question, "What would Jesus do?" followed by talking about how Jesus is a great portrait of God because God himself is love as we read in scripture.

He then stated we need to withhold nothing from God, and that we serve two masters, or think we can handle things on our own, we're wrong. We need Jesus.

Then he said that Jesus promised the Kingdom of Heaven, but just as surely as those promises are true, so are his promises of that place called Hell. He reiterated that we have free will, but God knew what we would choose before we were born.

This has always struck me as a disturbing paradox about God. God, knowing that much of his creation will end up in the Hell he has created as a never ending punishment for them, still creates them and allows this, even though he supposedly is love itself. The idea of eternal damnation is one of my biggest problems with Christianity. The concept of Hell is outrageous and contradictory to a being that is supposedly all loving. I understand they teach that God is all just, but there is nothing just about eternal damnation for finite crimes. There is nothing I can think of that a human being could do that would warrant punishment that never ends.

The sermon was unstructured, and all over the place, but I noticed that didn't matter. With churches like this one, it doesn't matter what you say, it matters how you say it. The pastor delivered the sermon in the iconic style of black preachers, dragging out words, shouting with conviction, sing-talking at points. The congregation played their parts well. The people would shout, "Amen!" or "Alright! Alright!" at most anything. One woman kept saying, "Say it," when the pastor would pause, then shout out "Amen!" when he would make his point. Many seemed distracted with children or some other task as they shouted. It was like it was what was expected for the atmosphere, so they did it because they were supposed to. A very interesting phenomenon to say the least.

Overall Experience:

The church was both an interesting cultural experience and a fun time. The people were absolutely lovely and I would love to talk to a number of them outside of church to know them better. I would definitely go back and spend another Sunday at Embry Chapel.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Gnostic Mass with the Ordo Templi Orientis

On Saturday, I went to a Gnostic Mass held by the Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Eastern Temple) (O.T.O.), the group founded by Aleister Crowley using his spiritual system of Thelema as a base. How was it?


I was unable to take any pictures of the event. When we got there, they were still setting up, and they didn't seem too keen on us taking pictures of the ceremony itself. The Mass was held in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, which I reviewed on here, before.

The set up was done according the the rubrics set up by Crowley:

There was an altar set up in the "East" (which was actually in the North). The altar was a three tiered structure the top level was an image of an Egyptian stele depicting several Egyptian gods, and on either side a row of white candles. The next tier held a copy of the Book of the Law lined on either side again with a row of white candles, then the bottom tier had a bouquet of roses on either side, a black candle on the left, a white one on the right, a chalice, and a paten. To match the candles on the last tier, there were two pillars, a black one on the left, and a white one one the right. The black one held a tray of cups, and the right one held a tray of hosts.The whole structure was surrounded by a black curtain that could be open or closed to conceal the entire altar.

A few feet in front of the high altar was another much smaller altar which had a gong, and a metal vessel to hold burning incense. This was called the Altar of Incense. Behind that a few feet was another smaller altar with a bowl of water and a bit of salt in a shell next to it. This was called the font. Finally, a few feet behind that was a curtained off box, called the Tomb.

Though the event was held in the basement of a church, I was quite impressed by the atmosphere of it, and it was quite beautiful and well done.

The People:

The people of the O.T.O. of Ogden are quite interesting. It is a motley crew of non-conventional people. A few were dressed in your garden variety Gothic clothing: black shirts and pants; necklaces of dragons, pentacles, or the unicursal hexigram (the symbol of Thelema); non-conventional or unwashed hair. Still others looked to be hippies or nature lovers of some form. Still others were dressed in sweat pants and t-shirts or generic street clothes, still others looked like soccer moms. There wasn't any one type of person in the group, which I found a nice change from some groups I've visited where everybody looks the same, dresses the same, and feels very uniform. The personalities of the people were just as varied. All of them seemed to be nerdy, much like I am, but quite varied in their likes and approaches to their beliefs. I talked with a couple.

One man seemed to be the president of the local chapter, I think he said his title was body leader. We asked him questions about Thelema and their organization. He was very sparse with what information he would give us. Even information that should have come easily. For instance, the local chapter is called N.O.X., we asked him what N.O.X. stood for. I know it's the name of the Roman goddess of night, but he wouldn't tell us what it meant. He said that it's symbolic of the dark night of the soul, but the rest is a mystery. But we can look it up in an internet search. So, thanks to the modern convenience of smartphones, we did just that right there. Essentially, it's the Night of Pan, the Greek nature god, but the name also means "all" in Greek, so he's the god of life and death, so it's about the transformative powers of death and what that does to the Ego.

Honestly, I understand some spiritual traditions have what are considered mysteries and secret ceremonies (usually framed as sacred, though the ceremonies are secret and not discussed) which are worked up to. But you have a mystery of your faith, you won't talk about it with us, then you tell us that we can search it online to find out, you might as well just tell us. It doesn't make it more mysterious and meaningful if we have to look it up. It just makes it more annoying. And if were truly a mystery we had to learn in time, you wouldn't have directed us to the internet search.

In general, the people were friendly, we were personally told we were more than welcome there by the woman who acted as priestess, and had some lovely and friendly conversation with many there.

The Service:

The service was structured heavily on the Catholic Mass and Eastern Orthodox Liturgy. It also took elements from many other tradition and patched them together into a quite interesting religious ceremony. For instance, the service had all the parts of a Catholic Mass, but it also had words of Greek, a modified version of the Hindu word, Om (a sacred word representing the totality of existence) rendered as Aumgn but still pronounced "om", a hymn sung to the tune of an Eastern Orthodox chant, several ritual hand gestures modeled after Freemason signs, which are similar to the ones used in LDS temples, images and dress like Egyptian gods, use of the Greek version of the Hebrew name of God, Yahweh (Iao), use of the name Baphomet, etc.

The ceremony began with us being welcomed into the temple, as they call it, and sitting down in rows that faced toward the center of the room. We recited the Gnostic Creed, modeled after the Nicene Creed. The priestess, dressed in a white dress, blue stole, and Egyptian headdress, and two women, one dressed in black, one dressed in white, came out and walked in a serpentine pattern in between the altars. They then opened the curtain on the tomb, and the priest, clad only in a white tunic, was there, the priestess took him out of the tomb, blessed him with water mixed with salt, and incense, then clothed him in ceremonial garments, gave him his spear, then massaged the spear. The two then joined hands and walked towards the high altar. The priestess then sat on the lower tier of the altar facing the people.

There the priest blessed the priestess similarly to how she had blessed him, and reverenced her. Afterward, the priest closed the veil leaving the priestess sitting on the altar.

There was more ceremony from the priest and deacon, then the priest went to the veil of the altar and had a dialogue with the priestess where they talked back and forth about her as the hidden mystery and to know her is the greatest of joys.

Afterward, the priest opened the veil, and the priestess was clothed only in a white gown. (It is my understanding that the priestess is supposed to be naked at this point, but I'm sure this was for modesty purposes given it's a public event in a conservative state.) The priest then sang a modified version of the Thrice Holy Hymn, an Eastern Orthodox hymn praising God. The priestess then kissed the spear of the priest multiple times. The priest then placed the spear between the priestess's thighs, knelt before her, and kissed her thighs, his hands interlocked with hers.

While this was happening, the deacon recited several prayers in honor of the Sun, the God, the Goddess, the Earth, the Moon, etc. He also reverenced their saints, which included mythological figures, like Dionysus, Hermes, Pan, Merlin, etc. It also included religious figures like Lao Tsu, Muhammad, Moses, Krishna, and historical figures like Charlemagne, and William Blake. One figure that really astonished me was Pope Alexander VI, one of the most corrupt and infamous popes in the history of the Catholic Church.

After that, the consecration of the bread and wine took place. This was remarkably similar to the consecration in a Catholic Mass except the words were slightly different, and the elements were presented to the priest by the priestess sitting on the altar. The priest consecrated the elements using the same words of the Greek Orthodox Church, and using his spear to consecrate them.

We all then sang the hymn that is done to a tune very similar to an Eastern Orthodox chant. After that, all the people present went up and took communion, each taking a host and eating it with the words, "In my mouth is the essence of the Light of the Sun." Then drinking a paper cup full of boxed wine, saying, "In my mouth is the essence of the Joy of the Earth." After that, we were to say, "There is no part of me that is not of the Gods." The communion wafer was delicious. It tasted almost like a moist gingersnap with a sort of rosemary taste. I'm not sure what exactly is in it, but it was good.

Then the ceremony ended with a blessing, then all the celebrants went into the Tomb and closed the curtain.

It was a very beautiful ritual with lovely aesthetics, chants, etc.

The Message:

There wasn't a sermon or anything like that, but the ceremony is rich in symbolism and mysteries. I thought the symbolism and mysteries of the ceremony were pretty straight forward and easy to understand. The priestess represents the Earth, the priest the Sun. The priestess takes the priest from the tomb representing rebirth. There's lots of sexual imagery representing creativity and fertility. The communion is taking part in what nourishes us, the Earth and the Sun which is the source of all we have, it ends with them returning to the tomb representing death, etc. While I'm sure there are minor more deep things in the ceremony, but as a whole, it was pretty easy to follow. They stated before hand it was to recognize the male and female within you and the complexity of your nature. I found all of that in the ceremony.

Overall Experience:

This was a very beautiful and very cool thing to be able to see. I liked the ritual and thought it was beautifully done, but the wait time outside in the heat before the ceremony was pretty rough. I don't know how I feel about all the different elements taken from other cultures, religions, and groups hodgepodged into a ceremony like this. You've essentially taken some of the most sacred elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism and mixed them with Freemasonry, Golden Dawn ceremony, and other elements. What Crowley did seems both disrespectful to the cultures and like an ingenious system.

I sort of have a love-hate relationship with it leaning more towards love. It was an interesting experience, and I think I would return for a second one.

Additional Notes:

I visited Embry Chapel, African Methodist Episcopal Church (a historically black church), today. I will try to have that blog up tomorrow. That one does have pictures to go along with it.

Until next time, peace be with you!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Heading to a Gnostic Mass by the Ordo Templi Orientis (Thelema)

The first stop on my two service adventure this week, is a Gnostic Mass held by the Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Eastern Temple) (OTO) The OTO is the society created by Aleister Crowley and is based on his spiritual system, Thelema.

In brief, Aleister Crowley was a man living in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was fascinated by Western ceremonial magic, the occult, mysticism, and other religions. He joined a metaphysical society called The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a now defunct organization that used Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), ceremonial magic, Enlightenment philosophy, and mystery ceremonies as mystical tools to bring about change in the practitioner.

Crowley took elements from The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Eastern religions, his own personal beliefs, and visions he claimed to have received from an entity named Aiwass and created a spiritual system called Thelema.

Crowley became a predominant public figure of his time, promoting: ceremonial magic, drug experimentation, and libertine philosophy. He also criticized social morals, was openly bisexual, and propagated himself as a prophet of sorts for the new Aeon of Horus. This led him to get the popular label of, "the wickedest man in the world."

Some basics about Thelema:

  • Thelema is a system based on the writings of Crowley, particularly his book, Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law) which he claimed was dictated to him by Aiwass.
  • Thelema relies heavily on ceremonial magic, mystery plays and ceremonies, meditations, to teach and transform the practitioner.
  • The pantheon of Thelema is complex as it is simultaneously monotheistic and polytheistic, stating that there is one God, but also calling upon multiple gods and understanding God through a heavily modified version of Kabbalah. Deities or divinity concepts reverenced by thelemites are: Egyptian gods, the Tree of Life used in Jewish mysticism, and Aiwass (believed to be an incarnation of Horus).
  • Thelema believes that we are currently living in the Aeon of Horus, a new age of increased spiritual wisdom and enlightenment.
  • Thelema has one hard and fast law: "Do what thou will shall be the whole of the Law." This is not taken to mean do whatever you want with no regards for consequences. Rather it is a statement that you should find what it is truly that you want with your life and discover your spiritual purpose, then seek to fulfill that.
The service that I am going to is called a Gnostic Mass and is based on the structure of an Eastern Orthodox liturgy, though it is very different from it. It is centered around Crowley's belief system and designed to symbolize what Thelema considers spiritual truths. It will end with communion of bread and wine similar to a Catholic Mass or Orthodox Liturgy, but the reasoning and symbolism behind it is different.

This will be very different from anything I've seen yet. I'm quite excited for it. I will let you know how it goes.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Crossroads Christian Fellowship: The church on the hill with the great coffee

I went to Crossroads Christian Fellowship, part of the International Foursquare Church, an Evangelical Christian denomination with Charismatic undertones. How was it?


This church was kind of a cool building. It's up on top of a hill just off the side of the mountain. We drove up to it and were greeted by a wood building and a beautiful view.

The interior was pretty cool, it felt a lot like a ski lodge with the downstairs portion seeming to be dedicated to church offices, classrooms, and a larger space for miscellaneous things. The sanctuary was upstairs. Upstairs was another open space with a coffee bar that had a barista behind it.

He asked if we would like some iced coffee. I said, "Yes, please," and was handed a frappuccino in a ceramic cup. I kid you not, this was one of the best cups of coffee I've ever had in my life. I have not had coffee this good since I was living in France.

The sanctuary was very cool and kept with the ski lodge sort of theme. They had a stage up front where the live band was setting up to play, chairs lined up in rows, but also tables over to the side. We snagged one of the tables and sat down for the service.

The atmosphere alone sold me on this church. I jokingly said at the beginning, "With coffee and atmosphere like this, they're already getting a good review. I don't even care what they say." Obviously, I do and won't give them a good review simply based on atmosphere. But it was an awesome setting for a Sunday.

The People:

The people of the church were extremely friendly. We were greeted at the door by a nice man in an NRA hat. A woman also greeted us and pointed out where the programs were as well as some name tags we could fill out. We to the stairs and were greeted by the pastor, a kind, middle-aged Irish man. He welcomed us to the church. He later came and talked to us while they were singing hymns and made sure we'd found the coffee bar and joked with us for a minute. A few other people introduced themselves and in general they were all very polite and kind to us.

The Service:

The service started out fairly typically of Evangelical services with about a half hour of worship songs. The songs were contemporary Christian songs. The people really got into them, including clapping, raising their hands, a few rocking back and forth. I saw a grandpa who sat at the table with us during the music portion take his toddler grandson's hands and move them like they were banging drums. That was a very cute thing to see.

One song's lyrics were really interesting. It was a song called, "How He Loves Us." This song's opening verses talk about how God is jealous for me and how his love's like a hurricane and we're trees. This is not the model of a good relationship. That's sort of abusive imagery. But the tune was really pretty.

After the musical worship, there was a baby dedication. This is actually similar to something from my Mormon heritage, a baby blessing is what they call it. Basically, it was just a blessing on the baby for a long and happy life. The baby's father gave the blessing and they asked the congregation to raise their hands and join in the prayer.

I thought this was a sweet little ceremony. It amazes me that virtually all cultures have ceremonies centered around a new child coming into their life. I think that's one of the things we crave as humans, to mark significant events in our life ceremonially with the community.

After that, there was a brief intermission before the sermon. Before the sermon, a young woman came up and explained that her mother had died suddenly recently. Her mother died without life insurance, and they didn't have enough money for the funeral. The church had helped raise funds to pay for the final expenses. I thought that was a wonderful gesture.

After the sermon, there was an altar call which was fairly simplistic, and just involved him asking anyone who wanted to talk or accept Jesus to come up to the front after the service and speak with the people up there.

Overall, the service was fairly typical of an Evangelical service: contemporary, Christian music, sermon, altar call, casual atmosphere.

The Message:

The sermon today was on prayer. The sermon was an interesting one and started out with a video featuring two men in a comedy act about different ways people often pray. They poked fun at people who make lists of demands for God, portraying the demands as petty and ridiculous. Then they poked fun at people who babble on praises to God by showing them babbling on praying as they fell asleep, then God trying to wake them up, but unable to tell them what they needed to hear because of their babbling.

The pastor then got back up and stated that we don't need to babble on to try to get God's attention, as he's always there waiting for us. He also said that God isn't a sugar daddy there for us to hit up for things we need. Instead he said that God is like a kind father waiting there to try to help his child be the most they can be in life.

Then, using The Lord's Prayer as a model, gave a list of things that will guarantee that prayers will be answered. He called it an ingredients list. But before listing them, he stated that we should approach God like a Father, because he is that to us.

  • Ingredient 1: Declare God's greatness. He said not to babble on incessantly about God's greatness, but acknowledge how big God is compared to you. He said God doesn't want all the ceremony and pomp, but the honest praise of man.
  • Ingredient 2: Surrender your will to God. Realize that you don't pray to get what you want, but what he wants.
  • Ingredient 3: Acknowledge your dependence on him. He stated that everything that we have comes from God. He said God gave you your job, your home, your livelihood, everything. Then he turned around and said that not all promotions come from God. That sometimes, man forces the hand of God to do something even though God has other plans. I find it an interesting idea that a mere human could force the hand of an omnipotent being.
Additionally, he gave 3 pieces of advice:
  1. Talk to God as though you have a deep personal relationship with him, like a friend or parent.
  2. Learn about God.
  3. Give back to God. Just a little bit of your time and money per week.
Personally, prayer is something I have issues with. As a method of focus, a method of feeling connected to something bigger than yourself, or a way to sort out your thoughts and get in contact with parts of yourself you wouldn't normally access, I take no issue. It's no different than meditation in these aspects and has a number of benefits. But I have problems with prayer as it's generally practiced, and this sermon hit on all of them.

Declaring God's greatness for example. If there is an omnipotent being responsible for the creation of our entire universe, then our hymns and praises to this God would be meaningless to him. Why would a God who creates nebulae, stars thousands of times larger than our sun, can orchestrate billions of galaxies with billions of stars across an immense stretch of space so big our brains can't even conceptualize it care that we take time each day, and take particular care on Sunday, to praise him? It would be like us being concerned that a colony of ants in Zimbabwe took time out of their day to make sure they praised you. If you believe in God, and praise him simply for your own awe at them, that's one thing, but the idea that God demands it and needs it is absurd to me.

But that aside, that's not my big issue with prayer. If anything, that's a very minor issue and one that's neither here nor there. My big problem with it is that people pray to God to find direction in their life from an external source, and that it's supposedly praying to God you must pray in accordance with God's will. If you are praying in accordance with what God has already planned for you anyway, then what is the point of sending up petitions to God for what you want?

But bigger than that, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what prayers get answered in this world. It certainly doesn't appear to be a plan that's just in any way. This was actually the matter that led me to stop believing in God entirely. Every day, in many parts of the world, there are people who suffer from famine, disease, poverty, and unspeakable horror. These people all seemingly innocent in the conflict. There are God fearing Christians in African countries that live in villages where rebels come into a town and find people they feel were sympathizers with the government and as punishment will rape the wives and daughters of those they feel are guilty, wound, disfigure, etc. They will then burn the village to the ground. A few months later, the government forces will come through and do the same thing to those they feel were loyal to the rebel forces. In other places, mothers will scream and cry as they watch their 4 year-old child die in the night from starvation because a drought and barren soil have left them with no food. Every single day, most of these people send up heart rending prayers for deliverance to God. They want nothing more than the basic necessities and security in this world. Yet, most of them will die without any hope, any comfort, and nobody will ever come and save them.

Meanwhile, in the United States, people think God helps them find their car keys, or that God was responsible for getting them their promotion, or making sure they got home from work safely. Why would a God dote on the rich, industrialized world so much and shower them with blessings, meanwhile the lowliest of all suffer and die needlessly without comfort?

This is why I don't believe prayer works in a cosmic sense? It all seems very random as to who gets their prayers answered, and who does not. When it comes down to it, for me at least, it seems that the events in our life come down to a lot of hard work and even more dumb luck.

I don't discourage people from praying, I'm not the kind of person who says we should eliminate religion or belief, nor do I want to take that from people. But this is a huge conflict I see in the world that I have heard no great and satisfactory answer for.

The message was a positive message, the pastor presented it in a way that was very uplifting, and the people seemed to be filled with nothing but the best of intentions. I enjoyed the emotion the pastor expressed and you could tell that he had genuine faith in everything he was saying.

Overall Experience:

This was actually the best Evangelical service I've ever been to. I enjoyed my time there a lot. I don't agree with what was taught, but I never really will in a Christian setting. I still thought it was a positive message, the people were so kind, and the atmosphere was so wonderful that it's hard not to feel inspired and enjoy your time at Crossroads. I would definitely go back for another service and love to get to know some of the people at this community even more.

Additional Notes:

This week I will be attending two services. One will be a Gnostic Mass held by the Ordo Templi Orientis, a ceremonial magic fraternal order founded by Aleister Crowley. That should be rather interesting to see. I will also be attending services at Embry Chapel, part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically black church.

Stay tuned for more on those. Until next time, peace be with you.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Heading to the Foursquare Church at Cross Roads Christian Fellowship

This week, I will be visiting yet another Evangelical church. I am heading to Cross Roads Christian Fellowship here in South Ogden. Cross Roads Christian Fellowship is part of the International Foursquare Church, an Evangelical Christian church started in the 1920's by Aimee McPherson. I find it really remarkable that there exists an Evangelical church founded by a woman that early on. Evangelical churches often have a history of promoting gender roles even today, let alone back then.

The Church teaches what are fairly general Protestant Christian principles:

  • Belief in the Trinity.
  • Belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and the sole authority on matters of faith and doctrine.
  • Belief Jesus is fully God and man.
  • Belief that humanity by is completely sinful.
  • Belief Jesus's sacrifice on the cross delivered mankind from sin and death.
  • Belief in salvation by grace through faith alone.
  • Practice of baptism. (For them, this is done by full immersion as an outward sign of them being reborn in Jesus.)
  • Practice of communion in memory of the sacrifice of Jesus.
  • Belief in the Last Judgment where all mankind will go to Heaven or Hell for all eternity.

    Additionally, the Church has the following Evangelical and Charismatic elements to them:
    • One must be born again by accepting Jesus as your savior.
    • One develops a personal relationship with Jesus.
    • One is also baptized in the Holy Spirit separate from their conversion.
    • This baptism in the Spirit leads to gifts of the Spirit like speaking in tongues or faith healing
    • Belief in the Rapture and the Millennial reign of Jesus.
    Finally, there are aspects of the Church which, while not necessarily unique, are defining of them:
    • Belief in the 4 aspects of Jesus from which the Church gets its name:
      • Jesus as Savior of the World.
      • Jesus as spiritual healer of mankind.
      • Jesus as the baptizer along with the Holy Spirit.
      • Jesus as the King of the World who's reign is sure to come.
    • Belief that a person can lose their salvation, that once a person is saved, that doesn't mean they're saved forever. They must endure to the end.
    • Faith healing as part of the divine power of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
    We'll see what this one is like. It seems very similar to a number of other churches I have visited, so, we shall see if there's much difference in tone or service.

    Until next time, peace be with you.

    Monday, July 7, 2014

    Satya: A New Thought Church

    Yesterday, I went to the Satya Center here in Ogden. I was invited by an old friend to check it out. He told me he wanted to see what an outsider would think of the group and to do an honest assessment of it.

    Satya is part of the New Thought movement and calls itself the Science of the Mind.

    Basic beliefs of the Satya Center are:

    • They believe in God and it seems they believe in pantheism (belief that God is the Universe) or panenthism (belief that God is the Universe and also existent outside the Universe).
    • Belief that all people are incarnations of the Divine.
    • Belief in an immortal soul.
    • Heaven is inside us.
    • God is a universal consciousness and this consciousness is the ground of all being.
    • Our thoughts can directly impact this universal consciousness and cause it to respond to us for healing and to change conditions of life.
    • The ultimate goal in life is detachment from all discord.
    • The Law of the Universe is love.
    So, what was the Satya Center like?


    The Satya Center is located in downtown Ogden, coincidentally right across the street from the Christian Science Church. The building is a beautiful old piece of architecture. Much of Ogden has some very beautiful old buildings that testify to its glory days now long gone.

    Inside the building are a number of rooms including a lounge with coffee and tea available. We hit it up for some coffee. I took a picture of some signs over the fireplace I thought were fun.

    The sanctuary was a small room in what looked like the guest house of the building. It was decorated with some water color paintings, candles, icons from various religious traditions, and track lighting and subtle lamp light.

    There was also a very pleasant smell to the room that I couldn't identify, but rather loved. Overall, the atmosphere of the room was very peaceful and brought about a very happy feeling.

    Overall, they did atmosphere very well.

    The People:

    The people at the service were all very kind and all spoke very positively about pretty much everything. I got a few hugs, one from a lovely woman who also attends the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ogden. The people were young and old, seemed to be from various backgrounds.

    I enjoyed the people, they seemed like very genuine, nice people and were probably among the friendliest I've encountered so far.

    The Service:

    The service started with some guided meditation that was pretty basic, but very peaceful. It started with us taking deep breaths, then becoming aware of our surroundings, and then envisioning a ball of light in front of our chests. We imagined the ball of light extending down into the earth, then up into the sky, then all around us until it encompassed everyone in the room, the city, the wilderness, and then the universe, before bringing our awareness back into ourselves. It was good at calming me down and centering my thoughts at the time. I've actually done meditation like this before as well as more complicated meditations. I miss doing this and forgot how much I missed it. I might be incorporating a regular meditation practice into my daily routine again.

    There was a slight break afterward, then we were summoned back to the service by the sounding of the singing bowl pictured above.

    They then had a song that was played on an acoustic guitar and consisted of two lines repeated continuously as a mantra. At first it was beautiful, then it got very repetitive and I just wanted it to end.

    They then performed a ceremony unique to their tradition called the Flames of Faith Ceremony. In this ceremony, they had a small table set up with 9 tea light candles and a larger candle.

    They lit a candle in honor of many of the world faiths:

    1. For the Tao.
    2. For shamanic traditions.
    3. For Hinduism.
    4. For Judaism.
    5. For Buddhism.
    6. For Christianity.
    7. For Islam.
    8. For Baha'i
    9. For the New Thought Movement.
    Then they lit the large candle in honor of Satya, a Sanskrit word which means, "unchangable" and is a concept of the constancy of the universal principles and the name this tradition has given itself.

    I thought it was a cute little ceremony, and I'm for interfaith and ecumenical dialogue, but these are conflicting philosophies and it needs to be recognized that they are and that there are positive things that can be learned from each, and really negative things that can be as well.

    After that, there were a few announcements, a meditative thought (which ties into the message I will discuss later), and some positive affirmations. The announcements included them saying that they were taking prayer requests so that they could do prayer treatment over them. I'm not 100% sure what this means; however, they said that their licensed practitioners would be working on these requests. I've never heard of anyone being a licensed practitioner of prayer, and I'm not at all sure what the certification process would look like for that.

    There was then another song that was sang like a mantra. Again, this was really pretty, but went on a little too long for my tastes.

    After that there was the message given. As usual, this will be discussed in "The Message" section. Prior to the message being given, the minister said that there was a sound healer who wasn't able to make it as he was off at the Rainbow Gathering (an annual gathering of hippies that is going on in Heber City, Utah this year) but he would be providing sacred sound healing when he returned.

    Now, these sorts of New Age healing techniques have been heavily studied by the scientific community and it's been proven time and time again that, outside of the Placebo Effect (which is remarkably strong), none of these techniques actually provide healing. In the best case scenario, when done in tandem with scientifically demonstrable Western medicine, it has a soothing effect on the patient and may increase the Placebo Effect. In the worst case scenario, people turn to it for healing exclusively and become even more ill, cause irreparable harm, or even death. You cannot treat cancer or HIV with prayer and meditation. The pH of your water isn't going to affect your health whatsoever unless it's so acidic or so alkaline that it is toxic. Your diabetes will not be controlled by sound waves harmonizing with your energy field. Taking vitamins or using herbal remedies will not cure your schizophrenia.

    As far as emotional and, for lack of a better term, spiritual healing is concerned, yes, these techniques can help a person get into a better mindset and help them deal with things. There's a lot to be said for mental exercises and how they affect our brains and mental states. But we also cannot rely on them exclusively to treat mental illness, and we most certainly should never rely on them exclusively for physical healing.

    All that being said, the minister was talking about her most recent knee surgery, and my friend's wife has been seeking medical treatment for some conditions, so I am positive they aren't using this healing exclusively and do rely on a mixture of alternative medicine and Western medicine.

    After the message, they sang another song. This time, I was very pleasantly surprised to find it was a Bob Dylan song I really love called, "To Make You Feel My Love." I sang along with it and really enjoyed their acoustic rendition. It reminded me of my favorite version of the song by Trisha Yearwood.

    They then took up an offering while stating an affirmation. After the affirmation, everyone stood up and held hands with each other and stated another affirmation.

    Overall, the service was filled with lots of sounds, lots of music and chanting, lots of calming words and soothing tones. All of these along with interactive liturgy can induce altered states of consciousness. These states of consciousness actually accompany spiritual experiences. If you want something very fascinating and thought provoking to read up on, read about the neuroscience of faith. Simply do an internet search of "brain scans and faith" or "neuroscience of faith" and several pages of interesting articles will come up.

    I liked the service for the most part. It was very relaxing.

    The Message:

    The message was a very interesting message about the limitations we put on ourselves. She began by stating that God isn't some superhero out there, and that God is inside all of us and all around us. She began with a quote from a Buddhist. The minister said two things that kind of grated on my nerves. First she said that Buddhism isn't a religion, it's more of a philosophy, then she said Buddhism is like Taoism.

    Let me be very clear, Buddhism is a religion. Period. There is a philosophy to Buddhism, it is highly adaptable and can be expressed with many gods and concepts of the afterlife or practiced by atheists, but it is still a religion. Buddhism deals with how to lead this life so that you can get out of a cycle of reincarnation and achieve the state of Nirvana. This is interpreted many ways by many types of Buddhists, but it deals with traditional religious concepts of morality, cause and effect, cosmology, the afterlife, and spirituality. Some traditions of Buddhism have various hells where people are reincarnated to purge themselves of more wicked transgressions. Some branches have hundreds if not thousands of gods from Bodhisattvas to more traditional concepts of gods of the elements. Some have no supernatural elements to them, but still focus on a spiritual quality of everyday life. Buddhism is most definitely a religion.

    And Taoism and Buddhism are not the same. They don't even have similar origins. Taoism comes out of Chinese philosophy and religious tradition and was started by Lao Tsu. Buddhism came out of Hinduism in India and is considered a Dharmic Religion. That being said, some forms of Buddhism have taken from Taoism and incorporated elements from it, but the two systems are not in and of themselves the same system.

    But she also admitted right after that that she didn't know much about religion. What she does know about are some of the teachings of these religions and about spirituality.

    She honored Buddhism as a great path to the divine and quoted a wonderful line from the Dalai Lama, "Kindness is my religion."

    The rest of her message was something I really enjoyed and was actually something I needed to hear. She talked about how our rules and our own mental barriers often get in the way of our potential. She asked us, "Are you living the life you love?" If I'm honest with myself, in most ways I am, but in a few key areas, I'm not. She then said, "Change your thinking, change your life." She also asked us to ask ourselves, "What rules aren't working for you? Do you have the courage to change them?"

    All of this she compared to a story of a tiger who lived in a small cage. They sponsored a lot of money to build a large, new habitat for the tiger similar to what her natural habitat would be like. When they put her out in her new habitat, she found a corner in the back, and proceeded to pace back and forth in an area the same size as her previous cage. She had all this space and potential she could have used, but instead, only went with what was comforting and familiar to her.

    There is a lot you can take from this lesson, and it actually did make me introspect a bit about some things in my life that are limiting my potential that are completely self induced.

    Overall, other than my little pet peeves about Buddhism and Taoism, I really enjoyed this message and felt it had a very practical application to life and is something that I needed to hear, and a lot of people probably should hear as well.

    Overall Experience:

    This was a mixed bag for me. On one hand, the sort of New Agey faith healing and everything is positive approach to life are two things I cannot get on board with. The world is filled with both darkness and light, love isn't the rule of nature or the universe itself. Nature is amoral, it doesn't care about love or justice. Love is a very strong human emotion. Love is central to our survival as a species. Compassion and love should be central to any religion or philosophy. But there is so much more to the spectrum of human emotion and such darkness to us.

    On the other hand, I don't think there is enough positivity in this world. There are people who seek to tear each other down, and many religious traditions (a few reviewed in this blog) seek to tear down and mentally abuse their members. I am very happy to see a group like this. I would rather every church in the world looked like this one than a single church exists that teaches their members they are nothing to God and they need to accept him or burn forever.

    I would go back just for the meditation, the extreme kindness of the people, and the positivity they presented in a very dark world.