Thursday, August 28, 2014

Were you there at Calvary Chapel?

This past Sunday, I visited Calvary Chapel in Clearfield, Utah.

A bit of information about Calvary Chapel. Calvary Chapel was founded by Chuck Smith, a pastor in the Foursquare Church. (I did a blog about them earlier. Go check it out.) He believed the Holy Spirit gave him the gift of prophecy to start a new Christian organization which would shepherd many flocks. He began Calvary Chapel, which had elements from the hippie movement involved in it, in the 1960's following a split with the Foursquare Church.

A major setback in Calvary Chapel's history came in the 1980's when Smith prophesied that Christ would return by 1981 and the Great Tribulation would begin and last up until 1988. When this failed to happen, many left the Church, though it has still continued on.

Though I mentioned it was born out of the 1960's and the hippie movement, Calvary Chapel still maintains fairly conservative Christian doctrine. They like to think of themselves as an Evangelical church that is part way between fundamentalism and Pentecostalism. They are fundamentalist in that they believe in the Bible is inerrant and take a more literal approach to it. They are Pentecostal in that they believe in gifts from the Holy Spirit.

Beliefs and practices of Calvary Chapel:

  • They like to view themselves more as a fellowship of churches than a denomination. Honestly, given that they have set doctrine, I don't see how they are not a denomination. But I very well could be missing a key distinction.
  • They believe in the Trinity.
  • Believe that Christ is the Messiah and Savior of mankind. He is the second person in the Trinity fully God and man.
  • Mankind is totally depraved with no goodness in him. A result of the Fall of Adam.
  • Mankind is saved only by God's grace. No works can save man.
  • God has predestined who will and will not be saved, but the individual still has to accept God's gift.
  • Christ died for the whole world, not just for the elect.
  • Mankind can resist God's grace.
  • They believe the saints shall endure to the end, but the world is full of sinful people who lead deviant lifestyles and call themselves Christians.
  • Believe in spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, faith healing, prophecy, etc.
  • Believe in baptism in the Holy Spirit, meaning the Holy Spirit comes over them and fills them with grace.
  • Believe that baptism is an outward sign of being born again in Christ for believers only. Done by immersion.
  • Communion is practiced. Symbolic of the body and blood of Jesus and his atonement.
  • Conservative social values: homosexuality is condemned, abortion considered immoral, women are not made pastors, etc.
So, what was Calvary Chapel like?


Calvary Chapel in Clearfield is literally a tiny chapel in a subdivision. It's quaint on the outside. Not much to it structurally. The cross on top is gorgeous with the trees framing it as you stand in front of the entrance.

The interior is pretty much what I've come to expect from Evangelical chapels. A bunch of chairs lined up in rows facing a stage with a live band, a pulpit in the center, and a screen to project the song lyrics onto. There weren't many decorations to speak of. There were a couple maps on the wall, one of which had a picture of the Mediterranean and what looked like Paul's journeys. The second map was of the Holy Land and looked to be modern and ancient superimposed on each other. In front, where you typically see a cross in chapels, there was the logo of Calvary Chapel, a stylized outline of a dove representing the Holy Spirit.

Overall, it was a fairly simple and typical Evangelical chapel. Nothing of real note to it.

The People:

The people were pretty nice. So many of them came up to us and introduced themselves. They were all very warm and friendly with each other. They seemed to be from diverse walks of life. Some with tattoos, some in suits, a few wearing Christian themed t-shirts. One woman was singing the hymns and signing them in ASL to herself. I thought that was pretty cool to see.

Overall, fairly nice and energetic people of diverse backgrounds.

The Service:

I am glad that this is the last Evangelical service I am attending for the year, as I am getting strong deja vu with the description of the services. It was the same as the others in format: contemporary Christian rock music for the first portion, a couple prayers with some announcements, then a sermon.

The music was the most noteworthy part. It just kept going. We sang songs for the first 45 minutes with only announcements and a few brief words between the songs. The words were kind of degrading at times, with the man saying them saying things like, "We are filthy," and "We have nothing to offer you, God." He would then follow that up with something like, "But you love us, Lord."

There was then a sermon, as I mentioned, and then a blessing over the congregation before being dismissed. In all, it was only an hour and a half, but the lengthy music at the beginning made it feel a lot longer. I much prefer churches with only one or two hymns at the beginning.

Overall, pretty typical Evangelical service. Not much more to say other than what I have said.

The Message:

The sermon was interesting. It lacked structure, which is a common trend. I find with most churches the sermon is either completely written out and planned down to the smallest details, or it is completely free form with no structure at all. This congregation chose the latter. It began with him reading the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, then it went off on many unrelated topics.

As such, I will present this sermon in bullet points of topics addressed, and then discuss one peculiarity I found at the end.
  • God promises happiness unaffected by circumstances.
  • We are totally dependent on God.
  • Before God, we are in abject poverty.
  • You are bad, you should mourn your sins daily.
  • Mourn your sins as King David did after he sinned with Bathsheba.
  • There is unhealthy grief, like when men are ending their addiction to porn and are grieving the loss of it like it was their best friend. (I'm going to be honest, that one almost made me laugh.)
  • Raising of Lazarus.
  • You should feel like dirt and endure God's wrath without anyone keeping you from fully experiencing your godly sorrow when you sin.
  • And then, all of this was followed up with the contradictory statement, "God doesn't want us to feel like dog meat our whole lives. He wants us to feel joy." This is in complete contrast to everything else mentioned above.
One thing that struck me though was the pastor told a story that my friend immediately recognized as a story from the internet. I looked the story up and sure enough, it is floating around the internet. The story is of a man standing in line at Burger King (retold as McDonalds in the pastor's version). There's a mother with her son behind him. The son is using foul language demanding the mother buy him an apple pie. The man is frustrated and outraged, so he buys all the apple pies just so the boy can't have any. In the pastor's story, there is an additional detail of the man giving the boy a pie after the boy starts behaving.

Now, it appears that this is a real story as all the sources I'm seeing of it put it in Canada and remain fairly consistent. I have no problem with the pastor telling this story, except he was trying to pass it off as something that happened to him. I hadn't heard this story, so I didn't think about it much. But once my friend told me it was on the internet, I suddenly questioned all the stories this pastor was telling as examples of his points. 

Why would you lie about a story like that when it's so easy to prove it didn't happen to you? It's very interesting seeing someone who's supposedly a man of God, up in a pulpit telling people how wicked
they are, meanwhile, he's needlessly lying about a life story. It does raise up some flags as I am 100% certain lying is a sin in every branch of Christianity. If you're willing to deceive everyone about something so small, then it's not hard to envision you lying about something major. I have no proof that he is. But it does make me question things.

Overall, the sermon was a huge guilt trip mixed in with Bible verses and stories about the pastor's life, which I question, that illustrate his points.

Overall Experience:

This church was truly what it claimed to be, a hybrid of the fundamentalist and Pentecostal traditions. It was a good way to end my visits to the Evangelical churches as it was full of the guilt and hell fire sermons I've seen in the fundamentalist churches and also filled with the contemporary worship and music of the modern Evangelical movement.

I wouldn't return to this church. It's more of the same, plus a lot of guilt, and a pastor I don't trust.

Additional Notes:

Due to some things going on this weekend, I will not be visiting a church, but don't worry. I will be doing a blog on a special event happening in my city, the Ogden LDS Temple open house. For those of you who have wondered what a Mormon temple is like inside, I will be describing my experience inside one.

I am also working on getting some interesting new religious traditions in the upcoming blogs, including a Heathen service, a Satanist one, Mennonites, Thai Buddhists, and much more. We're almost to the final ten churches, so be prepared for some fun!

Until next time, peace be with you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What do I believe?

I get asked this a lot. I mentioned before that I have no dogmatic beliefs. What I mean by this is that I don't believe in any of the traditional creeds of mankind, nor do I believe in any of the gods mankind has devised to worship. This means I do not believe in Zeus, Thor, Isis, Shiva, Krishna, Kwan Yin, the Great Mother Goddess, Allah, Elohim, Yahweh, or Jesus.

But this is what I don't believe in. What is it that I DO believe in? After all, we are more defined by what we do believe than what we don't believe.

Let's start with this:

This is a famous image taken by the Hubble Telescope. It's called the Pillars of Creation, and is a formation in the Eagle Nebula. The largest pillar is four light years in length, the little pillars that stream off the ends of the bigger pillars are larger than the Solar System. This is part of a nebula, which is essentially a giant incubator for stars. This formation is a small part of an even smaller part of our galaxy. Our galaxy is only one of billions each containing billions of stars. There are more stars in this universe than their are grains of sand on all the beaches on this earth.

Beyond that, this picture was taken within the past twenty years, but what you are seeing is the formation as it looked 7,000 years ago. It has taken the light from these pillars 7,000 years to travel across space to get to our eye. You are literally looking back in time when you see this image.

This for me is one of the big reasons I don't believe in any of the gods mankind has made. They are all too small in comparison to all of this. A god of such magnitude as to command and create a universe of this scale would not be concerned with our petty squabbles on a pebble like our earth. They wouldn't be interested in human passions and affairs. We do not live long enough nor are we big enough to be of any significance to something that can form dust into stars.

Contrast this with some of the concepts of God floating about in the modern consciousness. Biblical literalism tells us that the earth was formed in six days 6,000 years ago. If that were so, we would never be able to see these gorgeous Pillars of Creation as they are 7,000 light years away from us. The earth appears to be 4.5 billion years old roughly and our universe is around 14.5 billion years old. We have seen galaxies potentially as far away as 13 billion light years. A god of only 6 days of creation 6,000 years ago is far too small compared to what we can see with our own eyes in this amazing universe.

The Gods of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are concerned with what we eat and drink, how we live our lives, who we talk to, what words we say, what we believe, where we go on Sundays, etc. Meanwhile, if the whole human race were to parish, the universe would continue existing without us. We cannot affect even our star with our limited capabilities. Why should these beings be so concerned with us and have the same agendas we do?

I do not say any of this to bash the beliefs of others. These are simply the questions that have led me to believe what I do. If there is a God, then I do not believe that they care what I do with my life, nor what happens on this planet.

When you look at how vast this universe is and how tiny we are, it would seem logical that you would be filled with despair. But the opposite happens in me. In me, I realize that it's incredible that I can know all of this. That I can see this spectacular and wondrous world and universe around me and realize that the same dust that formed these stars also formed everything around me. I am literally stardust. I am the living incarnation of these unliving stars and nebulae, breathing air and fully aware of what I am. God is not out there, not some being to be worshiped and adored. God is inside me and inside of you. You are the living universe, right here, right now.

And when you realize that, you realize that there is no savior coming to save us from destroying ourselves. There is no divine being keeping fingers off the nuclear buttons. There is no messiah coming to deliver us from the darkest and final hour. Instead, it is only us, the children of the stars on this planet. We must save ourselves or parish.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Silence of the Wiccans

This past week, I visited the Order of Our Lady of Salt (OOLS), a Wiccan group in Salt Lake City. I mentioned them in the previous blog, so go check that out before you read any further, as you need to know bit about Wicca before reading this.


OOLS meet at a pagan/New Age store in the southern part of Salt Lake called Crone's Hollow. Crone's Hollow is a lot more than I was expecting and was rather cool. The place is divided into three places. The front portion is the store with plenty of pagan and New Age nick knacks to go around: incense, statues of deities and the Virgin Mary, lots of candles, crystals, censers, pendants, decorative knives, wands, books, etc.

This leads into a coffee shop which is the middle portion of the store. The coffee shop is nice. It has some decent if not overpriced tea and lots of books on every religious subject possible. I actually found a Bible with the Hebrew and Greek texts inside and an interlinear translation of the text in English. There were chairs and couches of an eclectic style, everything from plush leather chairs formed to look like a hunting lounge, to 60's style contemporary thrown about. There was a tent in the corner made of what looked like orange satin in the corner where they read fortunes for $20 bucks a pop. In the back there was a bookshelf that had nothing but board games and a table with a chess set as well. My friend and I actually played a round of chess before the ceremony.

The back third of the store is an interesting place. It's got a hallway leading to three rooms. One of the rooms is the large ritual space (where our ceremony was held), a smaller ritual space/meditation room with a couple of lounge chairs and a large open space, and then a lecture room, set up with rows of chairs and a podium. Along the walls of that room are a bunch of paintings from local artists which were rather beautiful.

The large ritual space was a large room partitioned off by the main hallway with curtains and had golden fabric draped overhead. Just under the draped fabrics were rows of black chandeliers wrapped in purple and orange lights. I loved the look of this room. It was quite elegant.

Along the eastern wall, there was a permanent community altar which has various elements people have brought in. It's a very cool thing, and reflects the spirituality of the Salt Lake region's pagan community quite beautifully.

Also along the walls were other decorations, primarily Egyptian papyri and this much smaller altar along the southern wall. I'm not exactly sure what this altar is for.

I didn't take a picture of the main space as there wasn't a good time to do it. They had set up chairs and carpet squares in a circle, which reminded me a bit of kindergarten, in the north-west corner of the circle, they had set up an altar on what might have just been a cardboard box with a blue altar cloth covered in stars. The altar had three candles upon it, and a larger candle just in front of the altar which was already lit and remained burning before and after the service.

Overall, the atmosphere was quite incredible, far better and more elegant than I was expecting.

The People:

The people were primarily women. In fact, aside from me and my friend, there were only two other men in the whole group, both of which came late. The majority of the women were in their thirties or older. One was dressed in black robes, four were dressed in other clothing, but I will touch on that in "The Service" section. Everyone else was dressed in regular street clothing typical of Summer in Utah.

The women seemed to come from various backgrounds and have different professions. Some looked like soccer moms, some looked like hippies who would frequent health food stores, some seemed like gammer type girls, one of the guys seemed more like he'd be the type to enjoy beer and wrestling on a Friday night, still others looked like they'd be just your sweet old grandma telling you stories while they cooked dinner.

All of them were very nice to us, welcomed us right into their little circle, and were very accommodating and curious about us.

I short, lovely group of people. Nothing really negative to say about them.

The Service:

We were greeted by the lady in the black robe welcoming us and then wafting incense over us and then sprinkling us with salt water. This is a symbolic gesture to cleanse yourself before entering the sacred space. Another one of them handed us each a journal and said that we were going to be journaling as part of the ritual. Before the ritual began, a woman went around with a birch broom and swept around the circle. Many Wiccans do this symbolically to cleanse the ritual space of negative energy. Afterward, another woman came and walked around the perimeter of the circle with a stick of incense, again, this is seen to have the same purpose. While I don't believe in cleansing energy and negative energy fields (other than of course real negative energy, like negatively charged atoms) it was kind of cool to see that.

There was a short announcement of who they were and welcoming guests before they cast their circle. For the circle casting, all of us stood up and held hands in a circle around a woman. We chanted as a group, "Air my breath, and fire my spirit, earth my body, water my blood," as the girl in the middle held onto a staff and said a prayer. It was hard to hear and remember all she said, but I remember one part where she said that behind us is the past and before us the path to our future. She waived her staff in a clockwise motion and said something to the effect of the eternal spark of nature within us coils about. She then struck the ground with the bottom of her staff, we all stopped chanting and she declared, "Our circle is cast."

There were then four of the women who stood in the four cardinal points to call the four corners. Typically, they summon the four elements personified as four Watchers, sometimes called the Guardians of the Watchtowers or the Grigori. The origin of these is actually out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. These are seen as angels of great power. This comes into Wicca through ceremonial magic, which borrows from Kaballah (Jewish mysticism). Typically, the Watchers are summoned by elements associated with each cardinal direction, earth for North, air for East, fire for South, water for West. But they didn't do that in this ceremony. Instead, they represented archetypes. The woman in the East was a woman dressed in a flowing skirt and pastel colors. she held a sky blue candle and said that she was the Watcher of the East and represented the rising Sun and the dawning of new life. The woman in the South was dressed as a warrior in chain mail and a sword around her waist. She said she was the Watcher of the South and represented the hero and strength. The woman in the West was the same woman who had cast the circle. She was wearing a heavy cloak and said she represented the setting Sun and the land of the dead. The woman in the North held a bouquet and said she was the Watcher of the North who represented wisdom and intellect.

After that we all returned to our seats and they lit the three candles on the altar, one for the dead who came before us, one for the living here now, and one for those who shall come after us. They then summoned the Goddess and the God to the circle.

We were all given earplugs and told that we were going to spend time in silence meditating, journaling,or just contemplating silence. I'll cover more about this in "The Message" section.

After this, they passed out Dixie cups full of some kind of tea and sugar cookies. They held up the cups together, and the woman in the black robes said that this represented the waters of the Earth which would cleanse and nourish us. She then held up her cookie and said that it was a cake which came from the Earth and that the Earth shall sustain us and nourish us.

We then discussed what we journaled, again more on that below.

We then closed the circle by holding hands in a circle again and saying goodbye to the watchers and the girl in the center again stating a similar prayer to the one which she used to cast the circle.

In all, it was a very interesting ritual, and not one I was expecting.

The Message:

We all put earplugs in and sat in silence, journaled, or mediated. Afterward, they asked us to share what we had learned. One woman talked about how we were afraid of silence in our modern culture because we have noise everywhere and it distracts us from the uncomfortable realities inside ourselves. The big message I took from this was that we need to take more time to go in and do self reflection. That we need more time in silence to be more creative but also to face the darker parts of ourselves that scare us but often hold us back.

I actually thought this was a practical message for most people in our society to hear. We are distracted all the time by sounds and media. We can't bear not to be without it and it seems to be shortening our attention spans and overstimulating us. It's a message I think we should take to heart. Enjoy the silence, allow it to build you up.

Overall Experience:

This was actually a positive experience for me. I don't understand why Wiccans are demonized and feared. It's essentially just a bunch of people gathered together loving and worshiping the earth and reflecting upon their inner selves. They're not judgmental for the most part and don't seek converts. It's very benign and not something that should be feared. What we should fear religiously is the rise of extremists in the major world faiths, especially in Christianity and Islam, which have weapons and/or political power. They pose an infinitely greater threat to humanity than a group of women gathered together to celebrate nature and talk about their feelings.

I would definitely return to OOLS for another service.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

We're off to see the Wiccans, the wonderful Wiccans of Utah

This week, I'll be stopping in on a public Wicca ceremony held by The Order of Our Lady of Salt in Salt Lake City. Wicca is a fascinating religion to me as it's a modern religion based on ancient and modern elements that is heavily misunderstood by mainstream society.

Because of this, I'm starting this blog out with a list of things Wicca is not based on misconceptions about the religion

Wicca is not:
  • It is not Devil worship. Wiccans don't believe in the Devil. Most Wiccans actually don't believe in absolute good or absolute evil. So a Devil has no place in their beliefs.
  • It is not like the movies or TV shows. Witches aren't engaged in a cosmic battle to protect the forces of good from the evil, dark magical forces. Again, battles of absolute good and absolute evil are foreign concepts to Wicca. Wiccans don't hurl fireballs, shape shift, etc.
  • It is not just a teenage fad. For many it is often a phase of adolescence that comes and goes. But for many, including teenagers who practice it, it is a lifelong religion. You will find practitioners of it in every age and background.
  • Wiccans do not perform animal sacrifice at all.
  • Wiccans don't seek to indoctrinate children, destroy Christianity, or convert the world. Wicca is viewed as a personal choice and they don't believe in missionary work or converting others.
A bit of background on Wicca:

Wicca is a modern religion started by a man named Gerald Gardner in the first half of the 20th century. While Gardner claimed to have been initiated into an old pagan order called "Wica" that had survived through the centuries, most believe he took elements of Norse and other European pagan traditions and infused them with ceremonial magic, Gardner himself having belonged to the Rosicrucians, a ceremonial magic system based on Kabbalah which also influenced Thelema.

Whether you believe Gardner was initiated into an old world order and added his own elements, or created the religion, it nonetheless continued on as a spiritual system based on covens, magic, and worship of two main deities, the Great Mother Goddess, and the Horned God.

Originally Wicca was only practiced in small groups called covens which were ruled by a high priestess who was assisted by a high priest. However, several authors, Raymond Buckland and Scott Cunningham primarily, took what they had learned from the covens and wrote books allowing individuals to practice the religion alone. This led to the religion spreading much faster and easier as people no longer needed to be initiated into a coven to practice, but could do so on their own using the materials from the books.

The exact number of Wiccans is unknown as there is no formal centralized bodies and many people practice in secret and no great census of it has been done. It's estimated there are more than 140,000 in the US, possibly more.

Wicca is a largely personal religion, and it's hard to say what is essential for someone to be a practitioner of Wicca. Individuals are encouraged to find their own path and discover what makes sense for them and what doesn't. There are some unifying themes found among most practitioners of Wicca.

Beliefs and practices most Wiccans share:
  • Belief in a supreme spirit which is beyond human comprehension. This deity is expressed through its male and female energies, called the God and the Goddess. Neither is greater than the other, but essential to the existence of the other. Most Wiccans see all the other gods mankind has worshiped as different aspects of the God and Goddess and will worship them as such. Thus, Wicca has elements that are polytheistic and monotheistic.
  • The Goddess is often represented usually as a lunar deity with three primary aspects: maiden, mother, and crone. She acts in these roles at different times in the lives of mankind, and in different seasons of the year.
  • The God is represented usually as a horned god of the forest, representing the primal nature of mankind, or as a solar deity to compliment the Goddess. He is seen as the child of the Goddess, her lover as the maiden, and the slain God who dies to continue on the cycle of life.
  • Wiccans have eight major holidays called the Sabbats. These correspond to the equinoxes, solstices, and four other holidays between them. These holidays are taken from various ancient European pagan cultures and most correspond to a holiday celebrated by the Catholic Church. These holidays mean different things to different Wiccans, so the list below is a guideline. They are:
    • Yule - The winter solstice, corresponding closely to Christmas. It celebrates the rebirth of light and the rebirth of the slain God.
    • Imbolc - February 1st, often celebrating the Goddess Brigid and the returning light. Corresponds to a lesser known Catholic holiday called Candlemas or the Purification of the Virgin Mary.
    • Ostara - The spring equinox corresponding closely to Easter. It represents the emergence of the Goddess as the maiden and the beginning of spring.
    • Beltaine - May Day. Not a Catholic holiday, but the old European celebration of Spring. This holiday represents fertility to Wiccans and is often seen as the mystical union between the God and Goddess bringing fertility to the earth.
    • Midsummer - The summer solstice, corresponding to the Feast of John the Baptist. This feast represents the God at the height of his power, the day being the longest of the year. In some traditions he is the Oak King replaced by the Holly King at this time.
    • Lughnasadh - August 1st with no major Catholic equivalent. It is the first harvest festival.
    • Mabon - The fall equinox. Corresponds closely to the Catholic holiday of the Feast of Michael and All Angels or Michaelmas. This is the second harvest festival and a time to celebrate the abundance of the harvest.
    • Samhain - October 31st or November 1st. This corresponds with Halloween and All Saints Day/All Souls Day. This holiday honors the sacrifice of the God and his death so to continue the circle of life. The Goddess also becomes the crone on this day. It is one of the biggest holidays for Wiccans and many believe the veil between the living and dead is thinnest at this time.
  • Wiccans also celebrate the cycles of the moon and full moon ceremonies (in some traditions new moons as well) are held called Esbats. (Interesting to note, Esbats and Sabbats are both derived from the word Sabbath which corresponds to the Hebrew word Shabbat.)
  • Wiccans have one commandment most live by, called the Wiccan Rede, "An it harm none, do what thou wilt." In other words, "If it harms nothing, do what you will."
  • Wiccans believe in the classical four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. These are united by a fifth element of spirit.
  • Most Wiccans use the pentacle (a five pointed star) as a symbol of their faith. This symbol to them has nothing to do with Satan, but rather symbolizes the universe or the Gods, each point representing one of the five elements mentioned above.
  • In addition to the pentacle, there are ceremonial objects that represent the elements to them as well: a wand representing air, a dagger (called an athame) representing fire, a chalice representing water, and a plate or pentacle representing earth. The element of spirit is often represented by images of the deities, a special candle or flame, or some other item.
  • Most Wiccans believe in magic and perform spells or practice forms of divination. Most Wiccans don't curse others as they believe whatever they send out comes back to them three times.
  • Most Wiccans revere nature as part of the God an Goddess and thus seek to preserve and celebrate nature. Many are involved in environmentalism.
  • Most Wiccans are fairly positive on sex and human sexuality. Thus sex is seen as something to be enjoyed and celebrated. Most have no issue with homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgendered people. Many are fine with polyamory as well.
  • Most believe that people should be free to explore their beliefs and forge their own path. As such, they do not discriminate based on religion nor how others live their lives unless it harms another.
  • Most believe in some form of reincarnation, though it varies as to the degree and type of reincarnation.
  • Most believe life and nature run on endless cycles of life, death, and rebirth.
Again, Wicca is a very diverse religion with many expressions and beliefs within it. The above mentioned items are general things most believe, but many don't believe in all of these things.

It should be interesting to see, I will let you know how it goes.

Until then, peace be with you.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Light of the Valley Lutheran Church, a lighthearted Sunday

Yesterday, I attended Light of the Valley Lutheran Church, part of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). WELS is the smallest of the three main Lutheran branches in this country with just under 400,000 members. The two largest being the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) at just under 4 million, and the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) with 2.2 million members. I have already visited the latter two, so feel free to check out my blogs on them.



WELS is theologically and socially conservative, much more so than the ELCA and even more so than the LCMS. WELS shares the following similarities with other Lutheran churches:

  • Belief in the Trinity.
  • Belief that Jesus is the Messiah and the second person in the Trinity who died for the sins of mankind, was resurrected, and will return again to judge mankind.
  • Belief in the Bible as the Word of God containing all that is necessary for the salvation of mankind.
  • Belief that the Bible is the only authority on matters of faith, doctrine, and practice.
  • Belief that mankind is saved through God's grace by faith alone and not the works of mankind.
  • Practice of baptism for infants or adults. Baptism is an outward sign of inward grace and grants membership into the Christian church. Baptism is traditionally practiced by pouring water on the head.
  • Practice Holy Communion using bread and wine. The body and blood of Jesus are mystically united with the bread and wine, said to be in, with, and under the bread and wine.
Differences between WELS and the ELCA:
  • WELS believes the scriptures to be inerrant and divinely inspired with the text meaning what it says it means. The ELCA however approaches interpretation of scripture in light of historical context, biblical criticism, and reason.
  • WELS believe in a literal 6 day creation 6,000 years ago and that Genesis is literal history. The ELCA does not have an official interpretation, however, theistic evolution is largely accepted.
  • The ELCA allows for a spectrum of belief and differing opinions on doctrine and practice. Thus the ELCA joins in ecumenical relations with other churches. WELS believes that the churches must be in complete doctrinal harmony.
  • The ELCA ordains women, where WELS believes that is contrary to scripture.
  • The ELCA allows for the ordination of gay and lesbian people and the blessing of the relationships of gay couples, though the decision is left up to the individual congregations. WELS believes homosexuality is sinful and contrary to God's will.
  • The ELCA practices open communion, meaning all baptized Christians may partake. WELS practices closed communion meaning only those of the church or a Lutheran church with similar beliefs.
Differences between WELS and the LCMS:
  • As mentioned before, WELS believes there must be complete doctrinal harmony for fellowship within the church. Thus they do not engage in relations with other bodies except for other Lutheran bodies with the same doctrine and practices. The LCMS believes there are differing levels of fellowship and engages with some levels of interfaith work.
  • Women may not vote in church matters or exercise authority over any post believed to be reserved for a man in WELS. In the LCMS, women may not be pastors, but may participate in any other church function including voting in church functions.
Given these little lists above, I was a little concerned about this church. Did my hesitation prove to be founded?


Of the three Lutheran churches I've visited, this was the most simple. Both the ELCA and LCMS churches were finely decorated and the chapels looked very similar to Catholic chapels with the altar as the central focus.

The exterior of this church is very simple and unassuming. The signs and crosses on the outside wall being the only indication that it's a church.

Coincidentally, the church is located just down the road from Faith Baptist Church, which I visited last week.

The chapel was quite simple, though lovely. The central focus of the chapel was a very large, wooden cross which was back lit. Directly underneath it was a very simple altar with a bible on it and two three branched candlesticks. To the right side of the altar was a pulpit, and a few banners decorated the whitewashed walls of the chapel. Aside from this, there weren't any other major decorations or accents.

Overall, I enjoyed the look of the church. It was bare bones of the required elements, without feeling stark and underdecorated. It was lovely and felt very warm and welcoming.

The People:

Nobody really went out of their way to greet us except during the Peace at the beginning of the service. That being said, I didn't get the impression anyone was looking at us like we didn't belong, nor did I feel unwelcome at any point in time.

The pastor at the end came and introduced himself to us. He is the new pastor there, this was his first Sunday conducting the entire service apparently. He seems like a very pleasant sweet hearted man with an optimistic outlook on life. I have no doubt he'll do well in this post. He also seems to do well with children just based on how he interacted with them during the service. More on that later.

Overall, they seem like a pleasant congregation and I felt welcomed though I didn't really talk to any of the members.

The Service:

The service was very traditional. It followed the traditional format of a Mass, but was more stripped down to the essentials. The music was traditional hymns accompanied by piano music.

It began with an opening hymn and then moved into a confession of sin. The confession was pretty guilt ridden and even included the phrase: "I have sinned against you and do not deserve to be called your child." I couldn't believe the level of guilt that was thrust into this confession. I don't get why Christians make guilt a fetish. Yes, guilt has its place. We should feel guilty if we wrong somebody. But Christianity goes way overboard with the guilt thing to a radically unhealthy degree in most situations. Why? Do they think it makes them better people walking around feeling guilty all the time? After the confession, the pastor read a prayer of absolution, then a quick hymn of praise was sung. 

Afterward, they began the scripture readings. The first reading was from Joel and talked about the Lord coming to harvest mankind. The second reading was from Romans and talked about prayer. The Gospel reading was from Matthew and was the parable of the sower of good seed. In the parable a man sows good seed, but weeds come in representing the wicked. At the end, there's a great harvest and the weeds are cast into the fire while the good wheat is kept. This is symbolic of the righteous being taken in by God and the wicked being cast into the fire and burned.

After that there was a children's sermon. All the children came and gathered around the pastor. The pastor asked them some very general questions about prayer, what they pray for, when they pray, what it feels like to pray, etc. Then he said it was important to pray and the children returned to their parents.

The pastor then gave his sermon.

After the sermon, there were some general prayers for the country and needs of the community, a final blessing, and a closing hymn.

In all, the whole service took about 45 minutes. It was very beautiful, well done, and I actually enjoyed myself at it.

The Message:

The pastor's sermon was on prayer. When I heard that I rolled my eyes because in the past month I've heard two sermons on prayer and didn't want a third one that was virtually identical to the other two. But I was in for a bit of a surprise with this one.

He started by asking, "What's your perfect Sunday?" he said most people will be able to answer that easily and come up with all sorts of ideas. But if he asked, "What's your perfect prayer?" he said he doubted anybody could really answer that.

He then talked about how we pray, and we don't pray how scripture says we ought to. Instead, we pray for our needs and only do it when we feel inclined. He said, "I'm not a prayer warrior. I don't have callouses on my knees."

So far it felt just like the other sermons. Then, he said that that was okay. That what matters is that we pray, not how we pray. Because the Holy Spirit will take our prayers and make them fit into the will of God. No prayer is the wrong kind of prayer. There was no secret formula, just you going before God.

This was quite the opposite message I got from the other churches which gave recipes for what is a good prayer that will be pleasing to God. They talked about how we needed to talk to God like a friend and how we needed to make sure we did these things in the prayer to make it a better prayer. Here, the pastor said, just pray, God will do what he will with your prayer.What mattered was that you were praying to God.

I don't believe in any sort of power behind prayer, but I do see benefits to it psychologically and physiologically, so I don't discourage people from praying. And given the choice between this message and the one in the other two churches, I'd much rather go for this one. I liked that this one didn't make prayer seem like some formula for hitting God up, or that there was a clear cut way to pray to God, but rather God would take what you had and make it work. This seems more in line with a being that is omnipotent and compassionate, rather than a God that demanded a certain style of prayer and a certain mindset.

Overall, quite a positive message for the congregation and one I was happy to see. Given the scripture readings, this Sunday's message could have been about God's wrath and gloom and doom. But instead it was about approaching God in prayer and doing so however you could. I liked that that became the focus.

Overall Experience:

Though the doctrinal statements above had me on guard and I can't agree with them, I was pleasantly surprised by this church and really enjoyed myself. It was a pleasant group, a pleasant message, and you could feel genuine love radiate in the service.

All three Lutheran churches I visited felt this way making me think that it might be an attitude Lutherans have in the US that spans the denominations. I would like to see more of that in churches in this country.

I would definitely return to Light of the Valley Church and say, "Hello," to them again.

Additional Notes:

After slacking off, I'm finally caught up with these. Expect the blogs to follow the normal format from here on out of pre-service blog and blog about the service.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Faith Baptist Church: An Independent Baptist Church

Last Sunday, I went to Faith Baptist Church, an independent church here in Northern Utah. From reading their website, I wasn't terribly interested in checking them out as I have already surveyed an independent, fundamentalist Baptist church. (See my blog on Berean Baptist Church.) But this church was the childhood church of a friend of mine who comes to many of these services with me. I felt because of that, we needed to go here so he could come full circle.

I will very briefly outline Faith Baptist Church's beliefs as they're very similar to Berean Baptist's beliefs.
  • Belief in the Trinity.
  • Belief Jesus was the Messiah who died for the sins of mankind, was resurrected, and will come again to judge mankind and reign forever.
  • Mankind is totally depraved without any good in him.
  • Mankind is saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus without works.
  • The Bible is the Word of God, without error in its original form. The King James Version is the only endorsed and acceptable translation for English speakers.
  • Practice baptism for those who have accepted Jesus as their savior. Baptism is a symbol of dying and rising in Christ and required for membership in the Church. Baptism is done only by full immersion.
  • Practice communion as a symbol of joining in Christ's atonement.
  • Belief in a literal 6 day creation period 6,000 years ago. Any other opinion or theory is condemned.
  • Autonomy of the local church.
  • Only sex between a man and woman lawfully wed is allowed. All other forms of sexuality condemned including porn, homosexuality, bisexuality, etc.
So what was it like?


The exterior of Faith Baptist is pretty plain. A beige building with a cross on the top of it. There is a small K - 6 school next to the chapel, and a sign in front of the church with various sayings that alternate on it. The message on it this time was, "Grace is free, but it's not cheap." Which doesn't logically make any sense, but whatever.

The interior (which there is a picture of, but it's not great quality) was contemporary style, white walls, lots of beige and off white accent colors, it reminded me of the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall, but much more beautifully decorated. The chapel was decorated the same way with a stage that was about 6 feet off the ground with wooden stairs leading up the front of it. In the back of the stage was a choir loft and a curtain. with a cross above it. My friend told me that the baptismal font was behind the curtain.

Along the walls of the church were a bunch of flags from various countries. It turns out this represents where they have missionaries. I guess they're a heavily mission oriented church. Some of the countries represented included: The US, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Russia, Germany, South Korea, Kenya, Israel, California (apparently it's own country), Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, Australia.

Overall, I liked the interior decorations of the church, while the outside was very simplistic and kind of bland.

The People:

The people were nice to us. They ranged the gamut of backgrounds, young and old, many races, people dressed in suits and dresses and some dressed more casually. I was surprised at how many of them there were, a couple hundred at least. Most churches I've been around here to have had only a couple dozen people. A few have had more people, obviously the LDS church, the Catholic church, and a couple of the Evangelical churches I've been to. I wasn't expecting to see so many

Pretty much everyone around us came and introduced themselves. This was the extent of the pleasantries with most. Overall, they were nice, diverse, and a large congregation.

The Service:

The service was fairly typical of what I expect from Baptist churches. It started with someone welcoming everybody, a song, then they had a little speech where the person said we needed to pray for missionaries, and spread the gospel, that dying while serving a mission is the best way to die, but we don't want our missionaries to because they have work to do for Jesus. He then said that Israel needs our prayers right now because of what's going on with them and Palestine. They praised Israel for what they were doing and then took up a collection. It's unclear by what he said if some of the money was going to help Israel or really where the money was going. But this part started me off on the wrong foot with them.

After that there were some more hymns. The hymns were traditional style hymns performed on a piano with the words projected onto two screens to follow along. We sang a few of them, with the choir singing in the choir loft in the back.

After the hymns, they read the scripture which was from Matthew and spoke of not casting your pearls before swine. For the reading, everyone stood up and then sat down right after it was read.

The pastor then delivered his sermon, which I will talk about in the next section. After that there was a prayer then an altar call.

Overall, a fairly typical service for low church Protestants. No real surprises as far as structure of the service.

The Message:

The sermon was on the topic of not giving that which is holy away to the wickedness of this world. That was only very loosely the topic. The sermon actually jumped around a lot from one hot button issue to the next.

It started with him saying that Satan is actively pursuing you. Satan doesn't want you to hear this message, and that him and his forces seek to ruin you and separate you from God.

He then said that all life is sacred. He went on this tirade about abortion, saying that there is never a time when it is justified. He then said that once you start killing babies, you move to killing old people.

Then he said we're all made in the image of God. He said that you see a homeless person on the street corner begging for change. And you know that person could go help themselves because there are programs out there to help them, but they don't. But you still need to feel compassion for them because they're made in the image of God. This was quite an awful message to hear coming form the pulpit of a Christian church and a message I could never see Jesus promoting. Much of the message of Jesus was about helping the poor, not condemning them as being unwilling to change their lives, then turning around and dressing that up with saying, "But be compassionate towards them." Compassion would be to sympathize with them, to go out of your way to help them, not judge and condemn them. Most of us aren't too far away from being homeless. A few lost paychecks and one trip to the unemployment line can send many of us there.

After this, he talked about how we shouldn't think we know better than God. He talked about how God formed stars just by saying a word. This isn't how stars form, but I can see the point he was trying to make.

He then moved on to talk about sexuality, which was quite random in the sermon. He said that sex is sacred and that our culture doesn't view sex correctly. He said that he wanted to be frank and let the youth know what was and wasn't sex. He said that anything sexual at all done outside of marriage was fornication. This meant masturbation, looking at porn, touching someone else's body, watching someone perform a sexual act in front of you, homosexuality, premarital sex, oral sex, all of it was equally sex and equally sinful. He said if you commit any of these sexual sins, you're sinning against God, yourself, and your future spouse. In a sense, you're cheating on your future spouse and not bringing yourself to the marriage altar undefiled.

This message really bothers me for several reasons. First off, it condemns sexuality which is something natural and healthy in humans. Sex is written into our DNA and is a primal instinct the vast majority of us have that is impossible to truly repress. Everybody has sexual thoughts, everybody masturbates. People often lie about it because of societal pressures, particularly religious pressures, will lie about masturbating, but it is something all humans enjoy. Most of my generation has watched pornography fairly regularly from adolescence onward, again with a large portion of people lying about it due to religious conviction. Many people will not make it to their weddings virgins, many who claim to have done so actually didn't, but lied about it.

This is a big problem I have with condemning sex. I promise you this pastor has masturbated. I promise you every member of that congregation has at some time in their lives. I promise you that that building is full of people being hypocritical and lying about their sexual activity. Condemning sex doesn't actually stop people from having sex. Usually all it does is make people lie about sex and fills people with shame and guilt over something they shouldn't.

I grew up in a culture that said all these same things about sex and felt like I was a monster because I was gay, masturbated, watched porn, and ended up losing my virginity at 15. But I got very good at lying about all of it. I felt like I was a fraud and I was convinced that I was the only one like this. Then I discovered that everyone was like this. We all had a sex drive, we all were masturbating, most if not all of us were looking at porn, a etc. The day I realized all of this guilt and shame I had felt, the times it had driven me to depression was for something everybody else was doing I became quite upset.

And that was another big problem I had with that message, was that it was targeted towards the youth of the congregation. Most of these young people will believe anything you tell them and they will end up feeling depressed, some might become suicidal if you tell them these things. Some will act out and figure if they're going to go to Hell for masturbation, they might as well do the rest. Many will seek unhealthy avenues of sexual release. Ironically, many of the youth will explore avenues the church doesn't want them to because they view sex in this way.

Overall, this sermon touched on every major topic that bothers me about modern Christianity. It left me sort of angry and didn't make me feel very positively about this church and what it teaches people.

Overall Experience:

The church was pretty inside, the music was decent, the people nice, the message was atrocious. That's pretty much all of my feelings for this church in one sentence. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sunday at Canyon Road Assembly of God

First of all, sorry for the inactivity on this page. I got busy and distracted by a few things in life. I'm not back in full force with 2 blog entries in 2 days.

Last Sunday, I went to Canyon Road Assembly of God Church. A little background information is in order for the Assemblies of God:
  • The Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal church in the world with over 66 million members.
  • They are Evangelical.
  • They believe in the Trinity, that Christ is the second person in the Trinity who died for the sins of mankind.
  • Believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
  • They believe the Bible is the Word of God and the final authority.
  • Believe in salvation by grace through faith alone.
  • Believe in baptism in the Holy Spirit and gifts of the Spirit such as speaking in tongues, faith healing, etc.
  • Practice baptism by full immersion, separate from salvation which, which prepares the person for service as a Christian.
  • Practice communion, which is symbolic of sharing in the atonement of Jesus.
So how was Canyon Road?


Canyon road on 12th street in Ogden and is literally down the road from the mouth of a canyon in the mountains. The building is pretty unremarkable from the outside, and other than church signs and a pretty little rock display, you might think it was a strip mall for dentists' offices and insurance companies.

I didn't get any pictures of the chapel inside. It wasn't too different from chapels at other Evangelical churches: stage up front with a live band playing, colored lights shining onto an abstract modern backdrop, a cross in the center of the wall behind the stage, padded chairs lined up in rows, nothing too different. The only thing that made the inside setting different than Alpine Church, the Genesis Project, Crossroads, etc, was that this one had multiple flags draped along the walls of various countries.

Overall, the same sort of atmosphere I've come to expect from Evangelical churches. Not much variation or innovation with most of these churches. What's interesting is around here so many people tell me that they just discovered Alpine, or the Genesis Project, or some other church and tell me that it's not like any other church they've seen and that I need to check it out. But it seems that this type of church setting is more the rule than the exception with Evangelical churches. They all have a coffee bar, they all have a live band that plays contemporary Christian music, they all use multimedia, they all have special seminars and classes, etc.

I think the main reason people around here feel these churches are unique and not like anything else is because most of the people going to these churches come from LDS backgrounds and this style of worship is vastly different from that. But it is far from unique.

The People:

The people were pretty nice to us. We were greeted and escorted to the chapel by a lovely lady dressed very well in a summer outfit. She introduced us to the pastor who asked us a couple questions and welcomed us to the church.

There were people of all sorts of walks of life dressed in everything from suits and ties to track suits. There was a lady in front of me who had a fan made out of blue feathers. I wanted to steal it out of her hands and run I loved it so much. But of course I wouldn't.

Overall, the people were nice. Not much else to note on them.

The Service:

The service was what I've come to expect from an Evangelical church, they began with a song, opening prayer, announcements, a few more songs, then a sermon and altar call.

The announcements were interesting. They talked about a youth event that had some PowerPoint slides to go with it. Then they talked about how they had members going to Mexico for a mission that sounded like it would also include a revival at the end. The pastor said he was flying out later that day to join them.

Afterward, they talked about a fundraiser they had. There was a couple of Latino guys who got up and spoke about the fundraiser. One spoke about it in Spanish, the other translated. There was a Spanish video that wasn't translated at all advertising the event. It turns out it's a fundraiser to help orphans in Latin countries. At least that's what I gathered from the presentation.

The church is also focused heavily on missionary work. They seem to have a lot of active missionary programs and brought up how important it was to go out and save people. I noticed most of their missions were to Latin America.

The service was nothing I haven't seen before at other similar churches. I feel like with many of these Evangelical denominations I rehash the same things.

The Message:

The message was on prayer and was pretty similar in many ways to the sermon given at Crossroads Christian Fellowship a few weeks back. As such, I'm not going to really rehash a lot of the same points as you can read about them there.

What I will say is that the tone of the sermon was different. While at Crossroads, it was given in a loving gentle sort of manner, as though the pastor were talking to his friends or family in his sweet Irish accent, here it was very much done in a preaching style and delivered as a well mapped out sermon.

Some differing points he made:

  • Prayer is like steroids. It boosts up your spirit and your life
  • Prayer feels good and is supernatural. This is an interesting point. Prayer doesn't feel good because it's supernatural. We actually feel good due to it stimulating parts of your brain that other activities such as mediation will do. It will create a sense of connection, euphoria, and relax you. All of this is quite natural and well studied.
  • Complaining is bad. Prayer is the answer to making you stop complaining.
  • If you don't invest your time in church or God, then how can you expect to feel connected? If you're feeling disconnected from either, it's not on them, it's on you.
Again, pretty similar sermon to the previous one.

Overall Experience:

I feel jaded saying this service was just business as usual. But it really felt that way. I don't see a lot of variety in these churches and would like to. I understand this is what most Evangelical Christians want in a service, but it just leaves me wondering each time, is this all? In a lot of other spiritual communities, there is a lot of symbolism, a lot of ritual, special holidays that call to mind differing parts of the tradition. You fast some days, you don't others. Here, it all just seems to be the same thing in and out every week with no real variety. When does it go deeper than sing these songs and listen to this man tell you what to believe?

Additional Notes:

Expect another blog tomorrow about Faith Baptist Church. I went to this church for my friend Austin. This was his childhood church, and though we had already been to a Fundamentalist Baptist church, I felt it was important for him to experience this.

Stay tuned for that because it was quite interesting, to say the least.

Until next time, peace be with you!