Sunday, January 08, 2017

I googled "spiritual direction trenton" and found a page of the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey. I was already familiar with the ladies at the Upper Room in Neptune. Nothing against them; I've been there many times over the years. But I'm looking for something nearby. A hospital chaplain seemed the closest and somehow I thought she was Episcopalian. The mailing address, telephone number and email address were all for her office at the hospital. I emailed in early May, not realizing that she had retired from the chaplaincy the previous year.

After two weeks passed without a response, I used Facebook, that wonderful online directory. In desperation, I sent a Facebook message in mid-May, asking about spiritual direction. Right before Thanksgiving, actually, when I was standing outside my daughter's homeroom waiting for her class's family heritage presentations, I received both a Facebook reply and a text message saying that I should call the landline if still interested.

We agreed to touch base after Thanksgiving and set up a meeting. January seemed the best time, after the New Year.

Meanwhile, I went to choir rehearsal this week for the first time since before Christmas. We were preparing songs for Epiphany and someone suggested We Three Kings.
No, the pastor who is filling in on Sunday specifically said no to that song.
Then the choir director mentioned the name of the fill-in and I recognized it as my possible spiritual director. And still thinking she was Episcopalian, well, maybe in a pinch things are freer than you'd think. I thought that I might better attend Sunday morning service to get a sense of her in advance of our first meeting this week. I wasn't sure I would need to introduce myself; I could be a "face in the crowd." But she stood right next to me as we warmed up our voices with the anthem song before the service. And only about twenty people total were in attendance at the service. Hardly a crowd. It's still entirely possible that she would not remember or recognize me. But I didn't want to risk the embarrassment in any case.

As far as a sense of her is concerned: You know, you can almost just about pinpoint the years these ministers were in seminary because their thinking and preaching is so molded by topics from those times. She mentioned a book in her sermon by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas. She mispronounced 'Crossan.' Seeing her struggle, I mouthed the surname at her from my seat in the choir box, hoping she'd get it. She said, "croissant." Anyway, The First Christmas, rather recent stuff from them. I had found a xeroxed packet of the book's second chapter among Kenny's school papers at the end of last year. She said the book changed her life.

After the service, I introduced myself and mentioned our meeting later this week. "Remind me again? Oh, can we move that earlier? Ok, say, 10?" That was it. Apparently she is not an Episcopalian. I'll try to keep her thinking that we are of the same denomination.

I intend to say something in our discussion about the popular small group vehicle in the local church for spiritual growth not working well for me. There are various reasons but mostly I don't like the clique culture it creates. But that's one of the small group model's purposes! Actually, I'm thinking that choir is a kind of small group.

Sunday, January 01, 2017


New Year's Eve Communion Service, 12/31/2016

I swear that the event was initially touted as a prayer service. Somehow, after I'd decided to attend, it changed into a communion service. Once I make up my mind, I can't just up and change it.

Recalling last year's service, this wasn't identical. As a woman played the electronic keyboard, I could hear her long fingernails clacking on the keys. We sang three of what they call a "chorus," just a refrain, really. Stuffed with the hymnal is a "chorus binder." I sat behind the associate pastor and his wife and imitated their gestures as we sang. We hand-clapped for the first number, except on the final time through. In the second one we raised our hands when the lyrics mentioned that. Well, I didn't raise my hands but I managed to turn my palms upwards. After confirming that she hadn't planned another song, the pastor asked for testimonies. Just about everyone in attendance gave one. It was like an auction and he'd call on anyone who so much as scratched their chin to witness. I dared not flinch. I felt like I was back in grammar school getting called upon.

But the pastor prefers talking to listening so he didn't linger on testimonies. He gave the musician at her keyboard on the platform with him an opportunity to take her seat with the congregation but she declined. He began reading from Genesis 1:31 and threw everything including the kitchen sink at us. Creation was very good but man was disobedient and sinful but God knew the plan from the beginning and Jesus would come to redeem us. And if you've never given your life over to him ... words that skip past the intellect and resonate at the core.

He described how communion would be distributed: everyone would come forward and take the elements from him. I could tell that procession wasn't their typical practice because there was no order. Everyone made a dash for it. I could also tell that, unlike when communion is passed, I would not dodge it. In a way, he was monitoring it. And a teen girl did not go forward, so he came to her and made her take it1. He also started towards the musician on the platform but as he approached she said she already had. Like before the service even started! After we all had, he said the words from 1 Corinthians 11:24-25 but also included Matthew's mention of the remission of sins.

We said a quick prayer and things were done. I left rather promptly. I counted 15 attendees including myself. The pastor blamed the low turnout on it being a Saturday night.2


1 and it's gestures like that that show they want the ordinance to carry more weight that they even admit.
2 it's interesting to note that in 2012/2013, Bishop O'Connell celebrated with Te Deum and vespers on New Year's Eve. NLM's write-up and my own recollection. As far as I know, it has not been repeated.

Friday, December 30, 2016

It's different everywhere and at this place communion happens on the first Sunday of the month. They wanted to wear the old robes for Advent and break out the new robes in the new year. I selected an unspoken-for robe, its plastic hanger not bearing a choir member's name, and it felt so snug, probably a youth's size. A shorter woman asked me whether hers, which was sweeping the floor, looked too oversized and I almost said, "Yes, let's swap!"

The fill-in pastor introduced herself to me yet again, asking me my name.

The choir box seats twelve comfortably. We had five altos, two tenors and four sopranos. The sopranos, however, believe that they reserve half of the choir box. Already they'd lost a seat to me, as I sat next to them in the upper row. The two sopranos in front, a mother / daughter team (or grandmother / granddaughter), refused to move down when asked. They weren't doing much to dispel the "diva" stereotype1.

The church filled up more than the previous Sunday evening, the Community Thanksgiving Service which eight people attended. I noticed that our choir director acts more like an MC, or rather more properly, like a cantor. For example, he called the pastor's attention when she inadvertently skipped the "Call to Worship" portion of the service. She thanked him and said, "What would I do without you?"

It seems intentional that so many adults volunteer to help with children's church rather than endure the sermon. The two sopranos, too, who refused to slide down, went out with the children. But they were simply slipping out early. The pastor includes so many quotations in her sermons; I feel she's trying to impress through namedropping. She mentions Henri Nouwen a great deal.

I did my best to keep on top of the service, especially when it was time to sing. Relative to the overall time spent at worship, we did precious little singing. And communion was tacked on, too. I had a side view of that Christian ordinance for the first time. She presented a huge loaf then gave four ushers (or deaconesses, I don't know) prepared platters. Two came directly to the choir box which seemed grossly disproportionate to the nine of us there. Then they walked, with measured or exaggerated steps, down the aisles, glancing constantly to their left and right to keep even with the other servers. As best as I could make out, only myself and the choir director abstained. They came around again in the same way as before with the juice cups. Four servers with full platters, much too much for the usual turnout. I passed empty, used cups down the choir rows because there are no prayerbook racks with spots for the used cups.

Meanwhile, from my side view, I became keenly aware that the minister was doing nothing while communion was distributed. She paced a bit at first, as if she didn't know what to do with herself. Then she backed up from the table and seated her rump on the front ledge of the platform. I found the image highly off-putting but I was just as bothered by her idleness during communion. Now, one might declare, "'Priesthood of all believers' means everyone ministers to themselves and self-communicates." Obviously, I'm not going to agree with that.

The polyester of the choir robes made me uncomfortable. If I had been seated on the end of the choir box, I would have gone out for a breather during the service. But I was trapped in the middle so that wasn't possible. At one point in the service, I really felt quite ill but I held it together and got through.

At the conclusion, I hung up my robe in the closet. I can't make the next four or five Sunday mornings.
1 "How many sopranos does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: One. She holds the bulb and the world revolves around her."

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

At some point, I met a woman at Bible study who is now on the verge of moving permanently out of state. She’s fifteen years my senior which seems to be the age of women that I get along with. I took an interest in her life, in the things that she opened up to me about, specifically her son’s high school cross country success and the ups and downs of church office employment. Often the responsibilities of that employment kept her from Bible study.

Then, at some point, she moved on from belonging to that church we met at. I myself had never belonged to it. So, except for Facebook on which she rarely shared, we were out of touch. Recently she became vocal about plans to sell their NJ home and move back closer to their childhood origins. I heard no plans for a good-bye gathering so I picked a Sunday morning to visit the evangelical church she attends.

Just riding through Princeton early on a Sunday morning is a treat. I saw a large group of young people waiting to cross Washington Rd. who may have been participants in the summer sports camps on campus, as Kenny was last summer. I spotted a family touring the campus on their own. Honestly, I’d never before made a right hand turn at Nassau St., so already an adventure. Lovely, beautiful houses, some obviously “original” to the founding. The church was quite out of town. I realized immediately that the wedding photos a photographer had posted to Facebook the day before were taken at this church. I drove straight to the back of the large parking lot and backed in to hide my many bumper magnets.

With my car door open, I leaned back inside to fish out my pocketbook and a bill for the collection. But I could see that an approaching car wished to park in the empty spot next to me. Except my open door was in the way. So, I scooted back into the car and closed the door however the driver had already found another spot nearby. I’m used to church parking lots being still, even deathlike, before a service because everyone is usually already inside for pre-service Sunday School. And with no one to lead the way, it’s a guessing game which door to enter by. No summer Sunday School.

About to open my car door again, I spot a second car coming to the back of the parking lot, and this time the driver does park in the spot next to me. I wait for them all to exit then I make my move to get out of my car. But the driver doubles back to close the car windows, which involves getting in and turning on the car. So I’m waiting feeling dumb. When I do finally get out, I see all the “right” bumper stickers and window clings on the cars parked around me, “Wilberforce School,” “Calvin College,” etc. Schools and colleges. No political stickers.

I see a family with children enter at the end door and decide that’s the nursery. So I’d better find another way in. I clutch tightly my designer Good News Bible with its two-tone leather cover and gilded edges— which I now see are so outdated! I used the hardcover, pew ESV Bible during the service and as confidently as possible, stride up to the side entrance, pleased to see that my long sleeve blouse, ankle-length skirt and leather sandals are in keeping with the prevailing women’s attire.

The service starts on time with the sanctuary a quarter full. I expect the hymn lyrics to be displayed on the screens but, no, Hymns for the Living Church is used.

There is no time for greeting those around us or welcoming visitors. Everything and everyone is “excellent,” because Princeton. I felt dignified just sitting there among them. The sermon hung together beautifully. It was on Isaiah 61. For the most part, he kept to that chapter and only referenced Isaiah 50 and 53 at the beginning. And he mentioned Nehemiah. There wasn’t any quirky theology in it. Nothing peculiar, nothing denominational. Just sinners and savior.

I gave up early on looking for the woman I intended to wish farewell. Once the service started, I was focused. Afterwards, I exited the sanctuary to the lovely area immediately outside. I spotted the acquaintance stuffing a bagel into her mouth. She was speaking with someone but when she saw me, she excused herself from that conversation. Turning to me, she asked that dumb question, “Is this your church, too?” I suppose an even dumber question would be, “What are you doing here?”

Anyway, I wished her well. She was on her way into the sanctuary for the later service and I told her, as well done as it was, it was probably a repeat of the earlier one and I didn’t need it.
Retracing my steps …

Next in line, I held my place while the clerk finished with a customer and then took a moment to help a co-worker with something in her line. I wasn’t close enough to hear exactly what the problem was but as she invited me to step up, she continued lamenting how it was her first day alone and “everything has gone wrong.” I laid out each of my items, one at a time, on the counter while she was thinking out loud about an employee on the sales floor, “Yeah, I’m only giving her three hours today, then I’m sending her home.” She tapped my phone number and email address into her register but I declined to have the receipt emailed to me.

The grand total shocked me. Wasn’t the entire store 50% off? I wanted to look over the receipt immediately. I glanced at it briefly then decided that it was probably alright and exited the store. When I got to my car right outside, though, something was still nagging at me. I patiently sat myself down and resolved to have a look. I pulled an item from the bag and scanned the receipt for its SKU. Not there. I pulled a second item, beginning to suspect I had been given the wrong receipt, and couldn’t find it. I got worried. When would the police swoop in and surround my car? I counted four items on the receipt and six items in my bag. I turned the receipt over, thinking more items might be listed after the fold but the order was totaled on the first side.

It was clear so what to do? Well, if it had been an overcharge, I certainly would march right back in there for an adjustment. Why should an undercharge be any different? Oh, but maybe all their scanned prices are screwed up in their system? What was the problem the other checker was having in her line? Wasn’t it about prices not ringing up correctly? Don’t new prices go into effect on Mondays, especially after a holiday? Maybe I broke even?

But I kept coming back to the fact that I got two items that I wasn’t charged for. And then I remembered the checker’s words about everything going wrong that day. It had been a long day at the end of a long holiday season. She was in charge of the store and any loss would reflect on her.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m aware, situated as that store is, where that store is, that merchandise loss is very likely a regular occurrence, whether or not the checkers “aid and abet” through careless transactions. Two items, in the grand scheme, may be a drop in the bucket. But I caught it, maybe not at point of sale like I should have, but before I’d left the vicinity.

So, somewhat sure of the facts, I returned to the store and purchased the other two items. I was not rung up by the same person which may have been a good thing. And I can’t be sure that the person who rung me up even let the apparent manager know of it. I feel my motivation was due to a sort of empathy towards the manager, towards a young person starting out in retail, an attempt to make up for a day when “everything has gone wrong."

Saturday, November 12, 2016

I follow a number of Facebook pages from churches, some near and some far. Not only because they remind me to "Fall Back" or "Spring Ahead" (especially "Spring Ahead") a couple of times a year so I don't miss church the next day. 'Though that is helpful.

Rather, I follow them because I am interested in how they go about differentiating themselves from other churches and attracting new members. It's an unenviable endeavor; they are eternally hopeful folks.

One of my friends during high school has been away from the church of her youth so long she probably doesn't even consciously remember it. She still lives in roughly the same area we grew up. Like most areas, churches there have been merged or closed. Decades ago, my friend joined up with a church that meets in a former movie theater. I visited the church with her on a couple of occasions, most recently last month.

Her pastor announced their acquisition of a former Catholic church nearby. The first service is tomorrow.



I find this interesting. Remember, I'm fascinated at how churches differentiate themselves and attract new members. The pastor's intention is to retain the original name and offer communion every Sunday. In the video he gestures in the sign of the cross, maybe without even realizing it:



It's just my suspicion that the church is trying to satisfy former Catholics who have a yearning for the aesthetics of Catholicism without church discipline or to attract current Catholics who can't be bothered traveling across town. Those who mistake this for that and conclude, "This is close enough."

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Earlier this year, April 1, in fact, I went to see a showing of the then popular movie, "God's Not Dead." at a local Presbyterian church. I didn't want to pay actual money to see the movie; this was a free showing. When I arrived, I could tell immediately that the event had been called off without my knowing.

Before leaving, I encountered two women on the church grounds discussing something. I had with me a donation towards the church's new hymnals. I recognized one of them and gave her the envelope. A week prior, that is, on the afternoon of Good Friday, a day I like to spend some quiet time away, the church was open to the public and in the pews there was information about the church's intention to purchase new hymnals and envelopes for it. I checked online at Amazon and they cost $50 (the price has since been reduced). I decided to dedicate a hymnal to the memory of a Reformed friend who died several years ago, so I set aside an amount commensurate with that. I had been following the discussion of the book's production, as well, in terms of which hymns would be included. I gave the money, left and promptly forgot about it altogether.

Fast forward to early September and I am struck with the idea to join a church choir. My daughter has sung in choir for several years. My son sings in school chorus. I have never sung in a church choir before. Only recently, due to piano lessons, have I begun to read some musical notes, the "home row" if you will, of the G clef. So I showed up at rehearsal one evening and found it somewhat bewildering. The choir director is excellent, which I already knew. Having never sung anything but melody, I stood next to an experienced alto to follow the part. I was getting up to speed on the pieces but then, almost immediately, I began to have scheduling conflicts that kept me from rehearsal. Somehow I hadn't even realized the weekly Sunday morning obligation! I questioned myself on whether I'd thought this commitment through sufficiently. Then rehearsal dates shifted around to accommodate the director's observance of the high holy days in October and my attendance at rehearsal became more consistent. More than that, others were unable to attend so I felt less bewildered with fewer participants and parts. I continued to get the hang of it.

The first Sunday that my schedule allowed me to attend coincided with the dedication of the new hymnals. I checked the several that were in pews around me for the dedication I'd made without finding it. The woman who seemed to be in charge of it asked me to write out again my dedication. I had the fleeting thought that nothing was made out because my name was unfamiliar or personally unknown. She presented me with the hymnal at the following rehearsal.



The only part of the service that touched me was the petitions. The pastor introduced this portion of the service by mentioning that we can approach God with boldness but then as he began to pray the congregation's intentions, his entire countenance changed to humility and intimacy. Not in a childish way but nothing like I think of "boldness." And I thought that perhaps we misunderstand what boldness is, especially boldness towards God. Now, maybe it was an act, maybe it was simply a habit of his. The authenticity almost doesn't matter because it starts from an intention, whether or not we can pull it off.

And my schedule allowed me to attend on the so-called Reformation Sunday, around October 31st. There was a bagpiper and we processed to the adjacent cemetery to the tune of "Amazing Grace" and recalled relatives buried there. For a nearly 300 year old church, it's not a large cemetery.