Sunday, November 22, 2009

Members speak for themselves at LDS

Although they frequently bring up the names of leaders at national and international level of their church, at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, also known as Mormons), most of the leadership of the worship experience was doled out to ordinary members. In some cases there was a show of nerves and of emotion, but they got their message across from a real people's perspective.

In the introductory post of this blog, I mentioned that part of the purpose of the blog is to respond to the documentary film Religulous, created by Bill Maher. The LDS took some of the hardest hits from that movie. For an outsider of a practical mindset to ask, as seems to be the implicit question that Maher pursues, "Do I believe in all of the statements and doctrines that this religious group makes?" is probably less relevant than asking, "Have they made life better for their members and for the world in general?" The latter question will lead to a more charitable, and probably more useful, answer.

My experience at the LDS Church showed little evidence of the the beliefs that Maher attacked and ridiculed most strongly. And, as I said, the worship experience sprang from the grass roots. The sacrament of communion happened near the beginning of the service and was served by a group of teenage and pre-teen boys. Then the longest part of the service consisted of talks by speakers Emilae Bonnaire and Jason Blanchard, members of the Ward (their term for what in other places would be called a congregation or parish).

The themes on which they spoke would appeal to many. They talked about the experiences of being within their church as tools for self-improvement and particularly talked about the home being a place of refuge--a place where good things happen in contrast to the outside world where bad things happen. I'm sure that this is not entirely the experience of many of us, and these speakers also acknowledged that this ideal is sometimes not reached. However, by repeating this theme, they may well have a good measure of success in bringing it into reality.

There was even an illustration taken from ancient Japanese parable, in which students ask a teacher for natural objects which he had described as vehicles for enlightenment. But the students see only their flaws, such as the thorn on the rose. So the teacher took back the rose and gave the student only the thorn, since that was what he concentrated on. See what you want to become and it will point you in the right direction.

Given this practice of having rank-and-file members do the speaking, I am tempted to throw out the word "worship" from what they do, and replace it with something more like "communicate." They brought wisdom from the pew to the pulpit. [I'm not sure whether they call it a pulpit, a lectern, a dais, or something else. But it was cool in that it had a control to quickly adjust the height of it.]

Finally, to the choir. Under the direction of Suzie Stein, this choir does some simple music, but does it well with a short amount of rehearsal. We met 45 minutes before the service, and were told that it was a small group today (it ended up being more than 20), and ran down the list of people who were missing and the reason. Warming up used solfege (syllables corresponding to pitches, such as the descending notes sol fa mi re do), something that doesn't figure prominently in my musical training. For this service, we did "For the Beauty of the Earth," arranged by Brent Jorgenson, accompanied by Karen Madsen on the piano and Carrie Woolley on the violin. Ms. Stein guided the choir through proper placement of consonants at the end of words, and corrected the phrasing as needed. One whisper that I overheard during the rehearsal was "What's a rallentando?" (For the uninitiated, it means to suddenly slow the tempo; ritardando is more of a gradual slowing). With the choir coming from the pews at the proper time and gathering in the chancel, this piece went well during the service. Other music that was in the binders was for the Christmas season, and would be familiar to many people. The other piece that we actually rehearsed was "The Star Carol" from the Alfred Burt Carols.

With each visit, it gets more and more interesting to see what other people do in worship, and this week was another enlightening experience.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Crossing the Divide

What seems to have turned into one of the most substantial divisions among Christian churches, rivaling Catholic/Protestant and liberal/fundamentalist is traditional/contemporary worship style. Not only are the words and style of the music different, but there are certain other trappings that go along with each one. In the traditional style you tend to follow the worship by using books (too much of this last week) while in the contemporary service the participants read from a large projection screen. In the traditional style, a clergy member leads the service, sometimes with a lay person as the assisting minister or lector, while in the contemporary style there is regularly a master of ceremonies-type person, often the minister of music, who does some chatting especially at the beginning of the service and tries to set the tone for the service.

I had seen very little real hybridization of these two styles until this week, when I attended the First United Methodist Church in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. I was there visiting my sister, who recently moved there, over Halloween/All Saints Day weekend. The church is one of the few public buildings in town without a large sculpture of a groundhog painted in a theme to match the function of the building. It is one of those churches in which a nearly square room has its sight line across the diagonal, and one side with a very large stained glass window with a nativity scene. But they put up a modern megachurch-style projection screen next to it and had a praise band next to it. This group actually had a name--Reckless Abandon. Furthermore, they did a lot of their own original music. But there were also hymns in which you had your choice of singing using a hymn book or using just the words on the screen. I have definitely heard the argument that it is easier for newcomers to join in when they have only the words, not the notes, in front of them. Although the Itinerant Chorister often considers himself to be a demographic group of one, I am definitely of the group who actually find it easier to sing along with unfamiliar music when I have the rhythm and pitches notated in addition to the words.

Pastor Jim Pond has a particular way of connecting with his congregation by saying what he knew of them without naming names. An example is when he was providing a Protestant definition of a persons who is helpful to other people as a saint (on All Saints' Day). He said, "As I look out at you, I see many of you who are saints in this way." The sermon used Job 1:6-22 as its text. Job started out being the pride of God's people, but Satan (sometimes translated in the book of Job as "The Accuser") said that it was easy because he was so well protected. Then he essentially made a bet, saying that Job was good because God built a hedge around him and everything went well for him, but if things were to go badly for him, Job would turn against Job. In the next chapter, it says that Job's friends arrived to comfort him, and first did so by standing by him in silence for seven days. Pastor Pond asked who among those there had done something like that, but again went back to saying that he saw people among the congregation who actually had done it.

Another interesting aspect of the service was that the children's sermon included a video giving instructions on preparing a package to send to poor children overseas as part of Operation Christ Child. After this, the children of the church went through to make a collection of money designated for this project.

The lower photo is the Halloween costume that I wore while in Punxsutawney.

Next week: Gone to the Great White North to see polar bears.