Category Archives: Worship

Sikh the Kingdom

 

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“It’s like we’re in a foreign country”, my wife commented as we stood inside the dining hall of the Sikh temple in Yuba City, California on Sunday afternoon, April 17, 2016.

As far as I could tell, we were the only white people, or as Dr. Shumate from the Sutter County Library might say, “Caucazoids”, in that room of well over two hundred people.

We were visiting the temple because the Sikh Community Outreach of Yuba City had invited the public to join them in celebrating Family Day, and to learn about the meaning of Vaisakhi, or the birth of Khalsa.

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This was not our first visit. On one earlier occasion an official of the temple had asked us how they could get more people like us to come.

“You mean white people?” I commented.

“Not just white people, but people that aren’t Sikhs”, he replied.

I didn’t have much to say at the time, but since then I’ve visited a multitude of places of worship while researching material for my blog, LeavingLinda.com. In doing so I have observed how other groups handle their new guests. Hopefully I can offer some insights into how the Sikh temple can get more visitors, and also enable those visitors to gain more from their experience.

Gol Stuff
Golgappa, deep-fried pastry ready to be filled with flavored water and desired filling.

On our recent visit, after parking our car, we walked over to where several canopies were set up, and looked around. We were treated to some servings of “golgappa” at one booth, where the mostly young volunteers were friendly and informative. We then passed the “Pagh Project” where a turban-tying demonstration was taking place. After visiting a few more booths and wondering what to do next, I happened to recognize a temple member, whom I know from my Toastmasters Club, walking by.

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“Inder!” I called out.

“Bob! what brings you here?” she replied.

“I heard there’s free food.” I chuckled.

“Did you go to the dining hall?”

“No I didn’t. I’m really not here just for the food, I like to visit places of worship and write about them for my blog. I would like to visit the dining hall though. How do I get there?”

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After getting directions my wife and I began walking towards the dining hall and knew we were close when we could smell the pleasant aromas of Indian food cooking. We walked inside, stood in a short line and, after having our Styrofoam plates piled generously with naan bread and other items, we looked for a place to sit. The right side of the room was lined with mats where mostly women and children were sitting. I opted to sit at the cafeteria style table and bench at the left side of the hall, and my wife followed. As we started to sit down, my wife noticed that only men were seated at those tables and, anxious to comply with temple etiquette, she asked if it was alright for her to join them. Several men nodded their heads yes, assuring her it was fine.

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Even without knowing the name of anything we were eating, we agreed that the food experience was outstanding. (This colorful vegetarian feast, combined with delicious memories of Punjabi Pizza at Dhillon’s, also in Yuba City, inspired an Indian food cooking phase in the Gauper family kitchen, which is still in progress. More about that in future posts.)

After eating, we weren’t able to linger much longer because of another commitment. While our overall temple experience was pleasant and memorable, I believe it would have been even more valuable if just a few features were in place to aid newcomers, e.g.,

  • Visitors Parking Area
  • Information Booth with maps and brochures about the temple and Sikhism
  • Docents to answer questions and guide guests around the temple
  • Recipe cards with details about the food being served

During my brief visit to the temple, I didn’t get a chance to discover the meaning of Vaisakhi and what the birth of Khalsa was about. However, subsequent research revealed that Khalsa is essentially the tenets of what’s required to be a true Sikh. http://www.sikhs.org/khalsa.htm

A true Sikh is required to worship one god, give to the poor, abstain from drug and alcohol use, never commit adultery and live by many other noble virtues.  The Christian Bible tells us you can know people “by their fruits”. Personally, I never doubted that the Sikh religion was inspired by God; my visits to the temple and interactions with local Sikhs have only confirmed that.

 

Striking it Rich in Las Vegas

jackpot!! by beckyb, on Flickr

“Hopeful! Enlightening! Inspiring!”

It must be the skeptic in me. Nearly every time I read a testimony about a workshop, camp, retreat or similar event hosted by my church and nearly every word is a superlative followed by an exclamation mark, I can’t help thinking: Yeah, but what was it really like?

While I may not be one to get overly excited about stuff, I really did have a hopeful, enlightening and inspiring experience at the Divine Principle 7-day workshop held in Las Vegas in late May 2015.

While driving to Vegas from California, I received a text message from the workshop staff, asking me to be a group leader. Normally I would have declined such an offer, but I had made up my mind to be positive and supportive so I replied yes, I could do that.

I got really lost on the way, and ran into a huge rock that scraped the underside of my car, all of which made me tired and irritable. But I kept my cool and before long I reached my destination, the Mount Charleston Resort, in the mountains a little north of downtown Las Vegas. I picked up a room key at the front desk and walked upstairs.

Mt. C at night

Mount Charleston Resort

When I saw my room and roommates I was really grateful that I had brought along a sleeping bag and pad, because there was only a queen-size bed and there were three of us; and even at two hundred pounds, I was the trim guy.

After an anxious night of trying to sleep but worrying that the combined snoring of myself and my co-tenants might trigger a major earthquake, I went downstairs to the lobby and found my way to the large room where most of the workshop was to take place.

I’ve been to quite a few church workshops and marriage enrichment seminars held in a variety of locations, from barns to first-rate hotels, but this was the first time I attended an event in what appeared to be a large cocktail lounge.

Cocktail Lounge Kumbaya
Cocktail Lounge Kumbaya

(Maybe it’s a trend, because recently I visited the Gospel Christian Center that used to be the Royal Oak Tavern in my old neighborhood of Linda, CA.)  Gospel Christian Center

The room, with its multilevel seating, bark-coated logs supporting the roof and a large bar, was a welcome change from the average featureless hotel conference room.

After an introduction by the workshop organizers Naokimi Ushiroda and Terresa Ferrete, the group leaders introduced themselves to the crowd of about one hundred and fifty participants, who then had to choose whose team  they wanted to be on.

What if no one picks me? I worried. But luckily, quite a few people, young and old, asked if they could join me. In fact, I had to turn some folks away because my group was too large. I was especially happy to see our ethnic makeup would be quite diverse.

Part of my group. *
Part of my group. *

Throughout the week we heard from various speakers whose  styles ranged broadly, from Gerry Servito, with his heartfelt and emotion-filled talks about God’s grieving heart, to Pastor Kevin Thompson’s often humorous but deep presentations on the root of sin.

Dr Michael Balcomb, Teresa Ferrete, Reverends Andrew Compton,   Miilhan Stephens and Mari Curry also gave presentations on various segments of Divine Principle (DP) such as Resurrection, Predestination, Christology and The Purpose of the Messiah.

After each twenty to thirty minute talk, we studied the DP within our small groups and discussed its contents and the gist of the lecture.

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At the end of each day, the group leaders gathered to share their experiences, offer advice and reflect. Each person was asked to say two words about the day. One word I often chose was “hopeful”, because I was consistently impressed with the people I met, young and old.

During mealtimes, I made special effort to always sit near someone new. I found the young people to be articulate and engaging, which gave me hope for the future of the Unification Movement.

I also enjoyed talking with many of the older members and hearing about how and why they joined the Unification Church. When someone with a Ph.D. in history told me he was so intrigued when he first heard the “Parallels of Human History” that he eventually joined the church; or when an engineer explained how “The Principles of Creation” presentation helped him to believe in God, it affirmed my own decision to embrace the teachings of Sun Myung Moon.

The spiritual education, social interaction, morning exercise on the cliff-side deck, inspirational music, good food, time in creation and other joyous activities made for a pleasant workshop experience. However I did have a few reservations.

For one, I found it a bit too “Kumbaya” for my personal taste to embrace shoulder-to-shoulder whenever a slow song was being sung, and preferred standing in the back of the room until the music was over. Although I did join in a few times, inevitably I felt uncomfortable, which might have something to do with my Norwegian/Lutheran ancestry.

The Master
Martial Arts Master, Gerry Servito.

I also felt kind of judged when sprightly sixty-three-year-old Gerry Servito jumped up onto a four-foot-high wall and started dancing around. If that wasn’t enough, while he was teaching us some martial arts exercises, he stood straight up from a lotus position, without help AND without using his hands. Sheesh!

One thing that seemed a little out of place was the presentation given by the Universal Peace Academy (UPA), which is headquartered in Korea, and is a graduate program for educating future leaders of the Unification Movement and other organizations. Personally I would have preferred an option to learn about UPA  in a break-out session. Just having Yuri Sato, a UPA student, on my team and seeing the enthusiasm of Takakuni Onozawa, another cadet, was plenty of advertising for the benefits of such training.

But all-in-all, the workshop definitely was good. Pardon me, great! I’m not sure what inspired me to attend but I’m certainly glad I did.

Unfortunately, I had to leave a couple of days early because of my dad’s ill health. As I drove north on Hwy 98 in the early morning darkness and looked in my rear-view-mirror at the bright lights of Las Vegas, I thought back to nearly forty years ago when I was preparing to move to Vegas. I was sitting in another cocktail lounge, in South Lake Tahoe, while friends threw me a going-away party. A band was playing the song, Las Vegas ain’t no place for a poor boy like me, which was appropriate because back then, Vegas was no place for me.

However this time, even though it was short, I felt I was meant to be there. I hope everyone else at that workshop felt the same.

DP Group
Best group at the Divine Principle Workshop. *

Jackpot
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  beckyb

* Photos courtesy Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

 

Roads less Traveled

Lluvia by Christian Frausto Bernal, on Flickr
A foreign substance coats the windshield.

Rain? I really hadn’t expected that.  Probably should have checked the weather forecast before driving over the Sierra Nevada Mountains; but it had been so long since we’d experienced rain during California’s extended drought, I just didn’t think about it.  My windshield wipers  groaned to life after months of non-use, their steady beat contrasting with the tempo of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony playing on the CD. (Yes, I had to look that up.)

It was nice to have the rain, but after such a long dry spell the roads can be slick and quite treacherous, so I made a mental note to drive extra carefully, as I passed Nevada City and continued east into the mountains on Highway 20.

Soon I was on Interstate 80 and  briefly visited the Donner Pass Rest Area.  Afterward I noticed the traffic was barely moving as I slowly merged back onto the freeway.  About twenty feet further I was stuck in stationary traffic for nearly three hours. There had been an accident; a semi-truck had spun out on the rain-slick road, flipped over, and was blocking the interstate.

I must have just missed that accident, I told myself. Although the long wait was a major inconvenience, I was grateful to be safe. Sitting in my car I contemplated what it might have been like to grow up in the nearby town of Truckee, where  my dad, mother and I had lived when I was a toddler.  Dad helped to build the freeway I was currently stranded on. He had been a Grade Setter for Caltrans. If it hadn’t been for my mother being pregnant with my brother, or if Truckee had a hospital back then, we might have planted our California roots in that small mountain town.

I was currently heading to Las Vegas for the grand opening of the International Peace Education Center (IPEC) and to attend a 7-day Divine Principle Workshop hosted by the Unification Church (now officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, or FFWPU). Originally I wasn’t sure I would be able to afford the time or money for the workshop but I told God that if I could sell my truck and trailer, I would go.  Thanks to Craigslist, they did sell, and I had to keep my promise. I chose to drive through Nevada because I had already driven many times to Vegas through California and  wanted a change of scenery. Also, by traveling through Nevada,  the “Sekhmet Temple of Goddess Spirituality” would be on my route and I wanted to stop by.

While most people seem to think the journey from Reno to Las Vegas is rather boring,  personally I find the solitude and open spaces of the Nevada desert to my liking. The drive gave me welcome hours of quiet and peaceful meditation.

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A welcome sign along the way.

Many miles and several naps later, I approached the small community of Indian Springs, which is home not only to Sekhmet Temple, but also Creech Air Force Base. Currently, the base’s main activity is “to engage in daily Overseas Contingency Operations [7]…of remotely piloted aircraft systems which fly missions across the globe.”[8] Its mission has also included support for nuclear testing at the nearby Nevada Proving Grounds.

Following the map sent to me by Candace,  resident priestess of Sekhmet Temple,  I found it with no problem, parked my car and began to walk around the well-kept grounds.

Marde De Mundo: Mother of the World
Madre De Mundo: Mother of the World

Approaching a small building, which I assumed was the temple, I was startled by what appeared to be someone inside. However, that “person” turned out to be a stone statue of Madre De Mundo, Mother of the World. Inside the temple and around the property were various statues and depictions of what appeared to be goddesses, and an altar for Our Lady of Guadalupe.

After taking a few pictures, I walked toward a nearby house, hoping to find Candace. As I neared the residence, I could see someone watering plants.

“Are you Candace?” I asked.

“Yes, I am. You must be Bob. Welcome,”  she replied.

I didn’t talk with her a long time. I could have asked a lot of questions about theology, or what they hoped to accomplish at this oasis in the desert, but their website already explained a lot.
www.sekhmettemple.com

Before I left, Candace told me that before moving the training elsewhere, Creech AFB used to send their assistant-chaplains-in-training, to the Sekhmet Temple for a walk-through and to get information. With the exception of one rabbi, who refused to visit, I imagine these future chaplains might have found their visit educational and enlightening, even if only to experience a different faith tradition.

As I was leaving, I took a few more photos and realized this was the only religious site I’ve visited where a worship service wasn’t taking place at the time. It would have been nice to see people gathered at the temple, walking the labyrinth, or simply doing whatever they do.

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Sekhmet Temple

After depositing a small donation in a  box  near the parking lot,  I walked back to my car, leaned against a fender and looked back at the temple grounds.  As I stood there enjoying the beauty of the nearby mountains (which I later realized was the Spring Mountain Range where my workshop would be held), I could understand why someone would want to come here to escape the stresses of modern life.

On the Sekhmet Temple website I had read about their passion for peace and social justice, which reminded me of the time  I was threatened by “peace activists” while taking photos at a “peace rally” in Auckland, New Zealand. Those peaceful folk went ballistic when they saw The Washington Times (conservative- leaning publication based in Washington D.C.) emblem on my photography bag and ID and wanted to beat me up.

Well, Candace didn’t seem to want to beat me up, and I believe our encounter was beneficial. In fact I’d like my wife to meet her someday, they probably have a lot in common.

I’m not sure what to think about a temple dedicated to  goddess spirituality, although I definitely believe in the concept of a “sacred feminine” and that for too long God has mostly been depicted as all-male. The Bible does say in Genesis that God made man in His own image, male and female He made them.

”Male and Female He created them...” by Art4TheGlryOfGod, on Flickr

 

The Divine Principle of the Unification Church describes God as a harmonized being of dual characteristics, masculine and feminine, just as all creation is also made up of those characteristics.

Judging by the kind of reception The Da Vinci Code novel received in certain quarters, the promotion of God’s feminine aspect is not yet a majority view.  Like my journey through Nevada, it is a “road less traveled”, in the unforgettable words of Robert Frost.  And as he well knew, those less-trodden paths can end up making all the difference.

 

Windshield in the Rain
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  Christian Frausto Bernal 
Gen 1:26
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Art4TheGlryOfGod 

Good Religion/Bad Religion

Bad Religion @ The Ritz 3.16.13-1 by elawgrrl, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  elawgrrl 

 

“Bullshit,” shouted Fred’s widow in her Oklahoma accent,  as she sat next to my dad  in a church pew.

She was responding to a statement made by the pastor at Fred’s memorial service, “Fred was such a great guy, always serving others and helping out at the church. He was also a loving husband.”

Many of us know people like Fred, who appear to be deeply religious, go to church on a regular basis, study their bible and whenever they get a chance, ask us if we know Jesus.

One time when I was a young boy walking home after Little League practice, Fred offered me a ride after I ran into him at the old Linda Market (where you can still see the steel pillars erected after my mother tried to turn the store into a drive-through). It wasn’t anything Fred said that got me thinking about Jesus, it was his driving.

Store across from Linda Elementary. Metal pillars placed after my mother smashed into the store with our pickup truck.
The old Linda Market with steel pillars erected after my mother drove into store.

I should have known better. My dad had warned me not to ride with him ever since that time he was with Fred when Fred drove through a stop sign.

“Why didn’t you stop?!” my dad yelled.

“It’s the law. The fourth car doesn’t have to stop,” Fred countered.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” my dad responded sarcastically as he worried about making it home safely.

Luckily, on my ride home from the Linda Market there was only one stop sign, we weren’t the fourth car, and we made it safely to the driveway of Fred’s ramshackle homestead. However, just as I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked Jesus for my life, Fred jumped out of his pickup as it was rolling down the driveway! As I sat there in the passenger seat in mild terror, and later amusement, the truck smashed into Fred’s barn and stopped. I could tell by the barn’s losing battle against gravity, he had done this many times before.

Fred's Truck

Although Fred was a great source of amusement and future blog posts, because of a series of moral indiscretions and an anger problem, he was not a very good advertisement for Christianity.

Sadly, religion does not guarantee that someone will be a good person.

Respected columnist and radio talk show host, Dennis Prager writes about a kind and non-judgmental young man who joined a Jewish Institute that Prager once directed. After a month of studying and living Judaism the man decided to become a fully practicing Jew. When he met the young man about a year later Prager says he was judgmental and very critical of his fellow Jews. Unfortunately it appeared that he was using religion as a tool to measure other people by, instead of a vehicle for his own self-improvement.

Prager has often stated that one of man’s greatest sins is to make God look bad. How sad it must make God feel if the people that believe in Him and proclaim His love aren’t very loving.

While shopping at the Grocery Outlet in Yuba City, I often chat with   Miranda, one of the cashiers, about visiting local churches and writing about them in my blog. She invited me to The Bride Church several times. Before I had managed to go there my wife and I were driving on Highway 99 and passed a yellow food truck on which we could see the words “Mobile Meal Ministries”.  There was also a small picture of the Blues Brothers on it and the words “On a mission from God”, which made us chuckle. After my wife commented, “There’s some good religion”, then I really knew I had to stop by The Bride Church since  I knew that  Mobile Meal Ministries (3M), an outreach to the homeless, was associated with it.

Bride

Not long after I entered The Bride Church and the service began, I could tell they were running out of room. The sanctuary was filled to capacity. The pastor, Bob Ouzts, addressed their space problem in his sermon and definitely caught my attention when he mentioned their church might be expanding into Wheatland, which is where I live.

The primarily Caucasian congregation consisted of a good variety of young and old which was impressive. I enjoyed the music the small band played and I noticed that many people joined in the singing, which is often not the case in many of the churches I’ve visited. I was intrigued by the custom-built plexi-glass enclosure built upon the stage to contain the drummer and his/her drums and assumed it was to tone down the loudness.

Drumcage
Custom enclosure minus drummer.

What especially impressed me about this church was their good works. The pastor, Bob Ouzts, founded the successful service group, “Craftsmen for Christ”, which utilizes primarily Christian volunteers to help low-income people repair and modify their homes, particularly if the resident is disabled.

A short presentation was given by church members Dr. Frank Smith and his wife about how they have been able to help facilitate the installation of water wells, promote entrepreneurship and work towards improving cocoa production in Ghana through the group Afrihope.

The brochure given to people entering the church listed many of the church’s activities, which included a marriage-changing seminar, a mission to South Sudan and various programs for men and women of all ages. And of course, the Mobile Meal Ministries (3M).

Pastor Bob certainly seemed like a very sincere man and after telling the sad story of a young man who recently died of a drug overdose, he tearfully shared,

“I don’t understand how a man can go before the Lord and ask for help and appearingly on this side of heaven not get it. ….Hurts.”

Pastor Bob shared of how when he was ten years old and on his first at-bat of the season in Little League he hit a grand slam homer. Unfortunately that was the last home run he ever hit because he lost his confidence and was afraid of failing.

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Pastor Bob Ouzts

Later on, he continued that most of us are on this side of what God has asked us to do and we’re sitting there in fear.

Trust me.” God is saying, “Will you trust me?”

In short, it certainly seemed to me that The Bride Church represented good religion. Of course I have no idea how many people like my old neighbor Fred, or Dennis Prager’s former student, belong to The Bride Church congregation, but I can imagine that the lives of many people might have improved because of their association with the church. However, as I was about to finish writing about my enjoyable visit I discovered something rather disturbing.

I wanted to clarify something about the April 19th service I attended and proceeded to watch the recorded service online. However, I accidentally downloaded the April 12th 11:00 am service and stumbled across a skit claiming that Buddhists, Hindus, and especially Muslims are essentially Satan’s buddies. I respectfully disagree with that narrow viewpoint.

Meanwhile:

Truelove
My daughter enjoys lunch with one of “Satan’s buddies” in Malaysia.

In a similar vein, a few years ago, another church decided to set up shop in Wheatland and to introduce themselves, mailed out a flyer educating my fellow Wheatlanders about the evils of Mormonism.

I find it terribly sad when religious people, primarily through their ignorance, attempt to build themselves up by tearing down the faith of others. If we have confidence in our own beliefs, and if the religious group we are associated with has “good fruits” we are proud of, we should be able to stand on our own merits and not need to disparage others.

That said, all in all, I guess I would still encourage people to experience The Bride Church at 655 Colusa Ave, in Yuba City and to visit them in Wheatland if they expand. Although, unless you have a desire to perform in a skit, you just might want to leave your, turban, skull cap, head-scarf or other non-Christian paraphernalia at home.

 

 

 

 

Beyond the Comfort Zone

 

Although that room in Lincoln, California, was filled with around forty men, it was so quiet you could’ve heard a pin drop. I’m not sure I would have heard that pin drop because my heart was beating so loudly. Those men were staring up at me, waiting for me to start singing a song I had written. Boy was I ever nervous!

Minutes before I was introduced to the small crowd, I was sitting in my chair thinking I was going to get sick. What was I thinking? How’d I let myself get into this situation? Then I realized it was all Mrs. Blackwell’s fault.

I first met Mrs. Blackwell when my wife started playing piano at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, which is a primarily African-American Church in Olivehurst that can trace its roots to 1852. My wife also played at the Chapel at Beale Air Force Base. Now I can’t remember how it happened, but somehow I ended up in the Base chapel choir for their Christmas Cantata. I think they just needed to fill a spot because they never even heard me sing. If they had, perhaps they would’ve realized why I was told many years ago by a Japanese musician friend that I was “tone blind”; I knew he meant “deaf” and I got his not-so-subtle hint.

Anyhow, one day I walked into an office at Beale to update my contractor identification and one of the people working in that office was Mrs. Blackwell from Mt Olivet Baptist. We chatted for a bit, and I told her I had recently joined the choir at the base chapel.

She gave me a mischievous look and said, “I’ll have to keep that in mind.”

Why’d she say that? I thought as I walked out of the office. About a week later I got my answer when I received a phone call.

“Hello?”

“Is that Bob?”

“Yes, this is Bob.”

“Bob, this is Mrs. Blackwell from Mt. Olivet.”

“Well hello, Mrs. Blackwell. What can I do for you?”

“Well Bob, I was wondering if you might be able to help us out with our entertainment for our Christmas program.”

“What do you want me to do? Join the choir or something?”

“No. I was hoping you could sing a solo.”

“Say what?”

“Sing a solo.”

“Mrs. Blackwell, you know I did join a choir, but I stand way in the back where I can hardly be seen, or heard. I…I… don’t know about singing a solo.”

“Oh don’t worry. You’d be fine. We’d love to have ya.”

“I’ll tell you what. Let me think about it for a few days, and I’ll get back to you.”

“Okay, I’ll be waiting. Bye now.”

“Bye.”

Once I hung up the phone my first thought was, how am I going get out of this?

However, that same day I started listening to a recorded sermon by Pastor Kevin Thompson, of the Bay Area Family Church in Hayward, California. In his sermon, Pastor Thompson encouraged his congregation to challenge themselves, to go beyond their comfort zones.

Wow. Singing a solo at Mt. Olivet would certainly put me beyond my comfort zone, I thought. Heck, I might be able to make a lot of people uncomfortable just by hearing me sing!

Daisys
Field of sunflowers at Bishop’s Pumpkin Farm, Wheatland, California. Photo by Maree Gauper

It just so happened that during this time I was also attending a Bible study organized by Heritage Church in Lincoln, which unlike Olivehurst, is a relatively well-heeled community a little south of where I live. During the study I was so inspired by Romans 1:20 that I wrote a song about it.

Maybe I could sing the song I wrote? That way, no one would know if I was singing it wrong. So I gave Mrs. Blackwell a call and told her that I would sing a solo for their Christmas program.

And that’s exactly what happened. Christmas week arrived and I sang my song at Mt Olivet. The congregation was warm, enthusiastic and supportive. They clapped and sang along and I felt rather proud of myself. But then I wondered if maybe this African-American congregation was just enjoying the novelty of a red-headed white guy singing in their church. And would they have been just as supportive, although confused, if I was up there singing “Row, row, row, your boat”?

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Inside Mt. Olivet Baptist Church years after my solo singing debut. This time I’m the emcee for an interfaith musical event. Funny, but no one asked me to sing ……. Photo:Elenore de Watteville.

Meanwhile, the Bible study in Lincoln had taken a break in December and reconvened in January. The leader of our small group, Tim, asked us to share stories we had about our Christmas and I spoke about writing a song and singing it for a congregation.

“Wow, Bob, that’s great. Do you think you could sing that song and give your testimony in front of our larger group sometime?” asked Tim.

“Uh, yeah, I guess”, I responded, feeling rather surprised he would ask me to share my testimony.

After our meeting, I approached Tim and asked, “Are you sure you want me to give my testimony? You do remember that when I introduced myself to the study group I explained I’m a member of the Unification Church founded by Reverend Moon?”

“Oh, yeah. I guess I forgot.”

As I was later leaving the study room, I glanced behind me and saw Tim speaking with the church’s pastor.

Eventually weeks went by, and I was never approached again about singing that song, so out of curiosity I asked Tim about it.

“How ‘bout you sing your song, but don’t give your testimony?” Tim suggested.

“Okay. I can do that,” I said, thinking, whatever.

???? by ohayo2007, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  ohayo2007 

 
And that’s how I ending up standing in front of a bunch of WASPs. And I’m not talking about the insects. I’m talking about White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. I wasn’t quite sure if it was because of my religious affiliation, or because they were just a bunch of white guys, but this crowd wasn’t nearly as supportive as the one at Mt. Olivet. In fact, the difference was, well, black and white.

Come on you guys, loosen up a bit, I wanted to tell them, but I didn’t. Instead, I simply took a deep breath and began singing:

Somebody told me,
Someone said,
Somebody told me that God was dead.
But I didn’t listen to a thing they said,
‘Cause I knew it was just a lie.
I said, oh, won’t you listen,
‘Cause I’m ‘bout to tell you why.

 You see, I saw my babies
when they were being born.
And I watched the sun arising
In the early morn,
And I heard a song of a whippoorwill,
Saw flowers growing on a distant hill,
Tried counting all the stars up in an endless sky,
Saw a flock of birds as they flew by.
You know that’s just a few of the reasons why
I say, oh my Lord, you’re everywhere I go.

 ‘Cause everywhere I look I can see you Lord,
Everywhere I am I can hear you Lord,
And everywhere I am I can feel your love.

 You’re in the mountains, way up high,
In the desert dry,
In the country, and the city,
In the ugly and the pretty,
In a forest and a stream,
I say…up….down…and in between.
I say, oh, my Lord, You’re everywhere I go.

 ‘Cause everywhere I look I can see you Lord.
Everywhere I am I can hear you Lord.
And everywhere I am I can feel your love.

 You’re in the black and in the white,
In the day and in the night,
In a servant and in a slave,
In the righteous and in the brave,
In the humble and the meek,
In the strong and in the weak,
I say, oh, my Lord, you’re everywhere I go.

 But I’m not a blind man, for I can see.
I know there’s a lot of pain and misery.
And sorrow may be your friend.
But if you can trust in the Lord,
Your heart can mend, and then…

Everywhere you look you’ll see him,
Everywhere you turn you’ll hear him,
That’s because everywhere you go,
You can feel His love, that’s because
He’ll be everywhere you go.

 When I finished singing, the room was still rather quiet, and some of those guys looked like they were in shock, at least for a short moment. And I thought, that wasn’t so bad after all! It fact it was quite exhilarating standing there, beyond my comfort zone.

 

 

 

How big is your God?

 (Guest authored by Maree Gauper. Also appeared in the Appeal-Democrat’s: Message of the Week, Jan. 16, 2015.)

Jesus said the two most important commandments were to “Love God with your whole heart” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”.   He didn’t say, “Love your doctrine as yourself” ,“Love your denomination as yourself”, “Love your own religion as yourself” or “Love only your own race as yourself.”  He meant us to love our fellow humans, whoever they might be.

By emphasizing those two commandments, Jesus revealed a God whose heart is not small. “God so loved THE WORLD…” ( John 3:16).  He didn’t just love the Jews or the Christians. He loved, and still loves, the whole world, with a heart so deep, wide and large that it is difficult for us to fathom. But the rulers of that time did not understand Jesus. Their God was too small. They charged him with heresy and had him publicly executed.

 The year 2000 marked the 400th anniversary of the untimely death of Giordano Bruno, an Italian priest  who thought deeply about God and the cosmos. Bruno had a large, expansive view of a vast, infinite universe where the earth moves around the sun, not the other way round. This brought him into serious conflict with the authorities of his day. Their God was too small. They had Bruno imprisoned, charged with heresy and burned at the stake.

Martin Luther King had a dream.  His God was not small, and neither was his dream. The dream was as big as God’s dream, that all people could live in peace and that there would be an end to racial injustice and all forms of bigotry.  He was also misunderstood in his lifetime, served time in jail and became the victim of an assassin’s bullet.

If we believe in God, but we only love our own kind, our God is too small.
If we only love our own family, our God is too small.
If we only love our own denomination, our God is too small.
If we only love our own religion, our God is too small.
If  God loves the whole world, He expects nothing less from us.

This year in memory of Dr King, and in praise and thanksgiving to the God who inspired his message and his dream, let us put aside whatever man-made barriers have divided us from one another, and worship together as one family under one God.

 

A Changed Life

ChRM - Copy

It was a dark and stormy night. (Really, it was!) I had already attended a worship service at the Christ Has Risen Ministries at 1225 Pasado Rd. in Olivehurst a few weeks previously, and now I was driving through a December storm to attend a weeknight Bible study.

I had told my brother, Greg, about my earlier visit, and he informed me that he and the pastor used to run around together years ago. My brother also told me that his ex-sister-in-law, Deedee, attends the church. I wanted to speak to both of them before writing this post for my blog and thought that a weeknight would be a good time to do so.

Since the weather was so bad, and it was a Tuesday night, I fully expected the Bible study to be sparsely attended. Much to my surprise, there were quite a few cars in the parking lot and when I walked into the sanctuary there were around forty people, young and old, inside the church listening to their pastor, Leonard Self, lead the Bible study.

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Pastor Leonard Self

If he would let his beard grow longer and bleach it, Pastor Leonard, with his stocky build and joyful countenance, could probably get gigs as Santa Claus during the Christmas season. When I first entered Christ Has Risen Ministries and sat down to listen, I was quickly impressed by his sincerity, especially when his voice quivered and his eyes teared up when he spoke about his love for Jesus and how the spirit of God set him free.

“When you step into Christ, you’re a new creation…Christianity isn’t for wimps, but God uses wimps…If you think Christianity is easy, you’re wrong!” were just some of the memorable words I had heard from the pastor on my first visit to his church. However, when he explained to the congregation about how, when people accuse him of using Christianity as a crutch, he responds, “No, it’s not a crutch, it’s a stretcher, it saved my life”, I knew that his was a changed life, a life now dedicated to helping others.

As I sat near the back of the church on my return visit I could hear the wind rattle the doors on that blustery night as I surveyed the congregation. I saw a Native American woman, about my age, and knew she must be Deedee. I saw bikers wearing leather jackets with the words “Christ Has Risen Ministries” embroidered on the back. I sensed that this was a congregation that had weathered many personal storms in their lives and you could see it on their faces. But they had found a place of refuge.

“I used to be so angry”, a younger man wearing one of the leather jackets testified. “I was always looking for a fight, but now I’m not. I’ve found peace.”

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Sunday morning service

As the testimonies and personal stories continued, Pastor Leonard reminded the group that they were a family, and that families look out for one another and that people could share their troubles and triumphs because everything stayed in this room.

When the study was over I approached the Native American woman and confirmed that she was Deedee. She introduced me to her husband and children and we talked briefly about my brother.

I then talked to Pastor Leonard and told him that my brother was an old buddy of his. We also talked briefly about my blog and I told him I had just written a post about Alicia Intermediate School, which used to stand across the street. We spoke about Peter, my fellow sixth-grader, who had stood up for me in the boys’ bathroom many years ago.

“Peter lives a few blocks from here,” Pastor Leonard informed me.

“That’s good to know”, I said, thanking Leonard and making a mental note to look up Peter some time.

I held tightly to the doorknob as I opened the door to exit the church and then walked across the street to my car. I zipped my jacket tighter to protect me from the wind as I stood there and watched the taillights of the cars that were leaving and I wondered about the lives that must have been changed in that church across the street. Theologically, I still have issues with certain aspects of traditional Christianity, but it’s hard to argue against the miracle of a changed life.

high street dreaming #2 by mugley, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
   by  mugley 

Healed by Grace

 

Pioneer Hall
Pioneer Hall

The searing pain from the gashes on her back was almost unbearable,  while unseen hands continued to lovingly apply ointment and bandages on her wounds.  She lay motionless, face-down, on a hospital bed in Pioneer Hall, wondering who might be tending to her so carefully; and looked up to see that it was Father David Clemons from Grace Episcopal Church.

That was a dream my wife had, after she had been the organist at Grace Church in Wheatland, California for some time.  Pioneer Hall, which is owned by the church, was where services were taking place while the main church building was being renovated.

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My wife at the Grace Church organ

In 1992 a trend toward decentralization took place within the Unification Movement. The founder, Reverend Moon, encouraged members to return to their hometown areas and, in connection with that mobilization, also urged them to adopt and serve established Christian churches in their neighborhoods.

When we first came to town we had attended a certain local church where my wife had also helped out with the music. However it had come to our attention through the neighborhood “grapevine” that that particular pastor and his wife had been warning local residents to beware of associating with us. Because of that and other hurtful incidents, which I would love to explain in detail but won’t just yet, my wife was ready to give up on dealing with Christians; she even spoke about wanting to leave Wheatland altogether.

However, her experience while playing piano for the chapel at Beale Air Force Base, her loving acceptance by the mostly African-American congregation at Mt.Olivet Baptist Church in Olivehurst, and her relationship with Father Clemons and Grace Episcopal Church all combined to help heal her heart.

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Inside Mt. Olivet Baptist Church

Since my wife was raised Catholic, she was quite comfortable attending services at Grace. “Catholic Lite” they term it, and she agrees. However, with the exception of attending the occasional service at Faith Lutheran in Marysville, when my grandparents were visiting from Minnesota, and praying or taking a short nap inside many of the unlocked Lutheran churches throughout the Midwest, when I was on MFT*, I had seldom been inside a “mainline” church. But it wasn’t long before my children and I felt at home at Grace.

Well-kept grounds
Well-kept grounds

The church is a quaint building with well-kept grounds on Third St. in Wheatland. It has been a meeting place and refuge for local families since 1874. The sanctuary with its stained-glass windows, high ceiling and beautiful altar can quickly fill a person with a sense of holiness, especially if they enter the church during “quiet time”, which is a fairly new tradition of dedicating a period of prayer and meditation before the official service begins.  http://gracewheatland.org/

There is no band playing contemporary Christian music, but many in the congregation are accomplished singers and the small church often resonates with heavenly music. When I am standing there singing, following along in a hymn book, I often notice that many of the songs were written in the seventeen or eighteen hundreds, and I think of the congregations of the past that would have gathered to sing those same songs, not only in Wheatland, but throughout America.

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Come thou fount of every blessing…

Grace Church doesn’t have a full-time priest and nearly every week there is someone different leading the service, which has brought an interesting variety of personalities throughout the years: Father Art, who grew up in Manhattan and was blind for many years until the modern miracle of cornea transplants, with his stories about the trials of working as a hospital chaplain in Sacramento; Dr. Dave, the shrink, with his deeply thoughtful and intellectual sermons combining the practical wisdom of a Jungian analyst with his understanding of spirituality; or Father John who inspired me to visit and write about places of worship when he told the congregation, “It’s not good to be comfortable in church”; and many others.

 

Father John gives a sermon.
Father John gives a sermon.

Jesus told his disciples, “You can tell by their fruits….” when warning them about false prophets. Good advice, not only for discerning false prophets, but for deciding the type of people to hang out with. The fruits of the congregation at Grace are many, for example, their extensive volunteer hours in the local community. They are involved in just about every good thing from Girl Scouts, tree-planting, Lions Club, Spiritual Needlework, Fire Department, Parents Day, and the Martin Luther King Music Festival, to opening up the fellowship hall weekly for AA meetings. In addition they hold a public pancake supper on “Shrove Tuesday” each year and co-host an annual Memorial Day luncheon.

Grace Cathedral
“Grace Cathedral”

These accomplishments are even more remarkable considering the small size of the Church’s congregation. On a typical Sunday there are fewer than twenty people in attendance. You could call it the little church with a big heart. Some locals affectionately call the tiny building “Grace Cathedral”. In any case, the members of the church certainly have a heart of service to the wider community.

For Lent, Grace church held a study group based on the book, “Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith”,  in which the author, religion expert Diane Bass, counters the accepted wisdom that the mainline church is dying, with her discovery that quite the opposite is true. Many of these churches through their consistent practice of contemplation, service, diversity, and worship are indeed growing, and are helping to fulfill the practical and spiritual needs of the community.

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On your first few visits to Grace Episcopal Church in Wheatland, it might be hard to figure out what book you’re supposed to be reading from, or when you’re supposed to stand, sit or kneel. You might wonder why ancient rituals are still being practiced at all. Or like me, you might literally or mentally be crossing your fingers when the Nicene Creed is read; but don’t worry. No one will judge you. Be patient, prayerful, and trusting, and there’s a pretty good chance that you, too, could be “healed by Grace”.

 

*MFT – Mobile Fundraising Team for the Unification Church.

There is power, on Powerline

As I drove onto the parking lot of the Calvary Christian Center at 4902 Powerline Rd. in Olivehurst, I speculated that it’s not only life that’s like a box of chocolates and you don’t know what you’re going to get, but also places of worship can be like that too. I never know what to expect until I step inside.

The old Holiday market turns Holy.
The old Holiday turns Holy.

I’ve been in this actual location many times in the past, to pick up a take-and-bake pizza, get a haircut, or purchase groceries at the Holiday Market. But the market is long gone. You can still get a haircut at a barbershop run by the pastor, but most of the food available nowadays is of a spiritual nature, with the exception of whatever’s selling at the goody wagon that’s sometimes parked there.

Many store-front churches that I’ve visited in the inner-cities of Chicago, New York and St. Louis were once businesses. Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Gospel Christian Center in Linda which used to be a tavern. However this is the first time I have ever been to a church that used to be a whole shopping center.

Step Inside
Step Inside

As I walked toward the main supermarket entrance where I assumed the church service would take place, I was fully expecting to go inside and sit on some metal folding chairs set out on a cement floor to listen to perhaps a band playing and a preacher preaching inside a cavernous, barn-like room; but that was not to be the case. An usher guided me to a small door to the right of the former grocery store. I entered and to my surprise, I was standing inside a beautiful, carpeted sanctuary. Mind you, it wasn’t as lovely as Grace Church in Wheatland with its stained glass, high ceilings and air of deep tradition, but I was impressed.

It wasn’t just the physical appearance of the sanctuary that inspired me, but also the diverse racial and inter-generational make-up of the people. You’d need one of those expensive Whitman Samplers if you wanted a box of chocolates representative of this group, one with plenty of variety including dark, milk, and white chocolate.

Box a Chocolates
Box o’ Chocolates

Recently I have been amusing myself by reflecting on how people in general are like chocolates: some are a little nutty, some look nice on the outside but might be hollow or not very substantial inside, like a Three Musketeers bar; others are more like a plain piece of chocolate, solid through-and-through and dependable. Some people are like a Heath toffee bar, brittle and hard to deal with, but they’re worth the effort. Others have hearts shriveled up like chocolate-covered raisins that could use some plumping up.

The band started playing and the music was good, although a few times the words on the overhead screen didn’t match what the band was singing. Guests were asked to stand and be recognized, and everyone greeted us warmly and welcomed us to Calvary church.

Inside the church
Inside the church

It was Mother’s Day. A video about the importance of mothers was played and gifts for mothers in the room were given out. One of those gifts fell out of the basket near me and I thought about keeping it, but since I’m not a mother, I picked it up and placed it back in the basket.

Pastor Braxton speaks the Word.
Pastor Braxton speaks the Word

Pastor Richard Braxton gave a powerful sermon called Keys to Living in the Kingdom, in which he spoke about the importance of staying out of debt. He quoted from Matthew 6:24-25, where Jesus says that no one can serve two masters, that we shouldn’t be anxious about what we eat or wear and that debt is not our friend. Pastor Braxton continued with a quote from Romans 13:8. “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”

When the pastor asked the congregation to hold up their Bibles, I felt like someone in the 1600s holding up a papyrus roll while everyone else held up a printed book, because while I was holding up a paper Bible nearly everyone else was holding up an iPad, Kindle or similar device. People really like their electronic Bibles for the many helpful features they offer.

I felt a bit ancient with my paper bible.
I felt a bit ancient with my paper Bible.

One problem with this era of electronic devices, however, is when they become a distraction. I couldn’t help noticing a teenager near me who spent an awful lot of time texting during the service. Although, I shouldn’t judge; perhaps he was chatting with friends and telling them they should be at church. But, from the looks he was getting from his mother, that probably wasn’t the case.

Unfortunately I had to leave early to get the car back home for my wife to use, but something rather significant happened to me as I was leaving.

I once gave a speech titled It’s the little Things, in which I mentioned that it’s often the small things in life that help us know that we’re loved and cared for. As I was heading toward my car a young man ran out after me and asked me if anything was wrong. I told him not a thing was wrong, and that I’d be back, but thanks for asking.

Well I have been back, and I even got a haircut at the barbershop, attended a few marriage classes with my wife and have also gotten to know Pastor Braxton and his lovely wife Kisha a little better.

Pastor Braxton and Kisha
Pastor Braxton and Kisha

And it makes me wonder if all churches, in addition to ushers, should also have “rushers”, or people whose ministry is to rush out after anyone who leaves early and find out if something’s wrong.

Service starts at 11: 30 on Sundays. Make sure you go through the small door with the sign which reads “Enter Here”. Oh, and don’t forget your iPad or similar device. But even without one, you can be sure of a warm welcome at Calvary Christian Center.

The old shopping center
The resurrected shopping center

 

Truth Tabernacle

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Truth Tabernacle at 5206 Tulip Rd. in Olivehurst, just off Lindhurst Ave, is a humble, unassuming building that I often pass while driving down that way. But whatever the building and grounds may lack in aesthetics is quickly forgotten when you enter the church, hear the music and the message, and feel the spirit.

Minutes before walking into the church, I had been driving along Olivehurst Ave. towards Lindhurst when I saw a young couple with a baby carriage and several young children in tow, walking across the bridge that goes over the freeway. Although the young man looked a bit rough, with his shaved head and tattoos, I thought perhaps they were heading to Truth Tabernacle.

I arrived at the church a little before 10:00 A.M. which was right before the adult Bible study. Live music was playing and a middle-aged man with a British accent led the congregation in some songs. The music was good and I joined in the singing and waited for the person that would be leading the study. Just as I started to sit down, the couple that was walking on the bridge with their children entered the church.

The Bible teacher for the morning was Assistant Pastor John Floe. He had us open our Bibles to Genesis Chapter 4 and read about the account of Cain and Abel and the giving of their offerings to God. I found it interesting that in a Toastmasters’ Speaking Contest I had competed in  just the day before, the title of my speech was “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” which comes from Genesis 4.

Cain and Abel
Cain and Abel make an Offering

Pastor Floe encouraged everyone to have a good attitude, to trust in God, and to use the power of the Holy Spirit to help us to resist temptation. He reminded us that God is a god who doesn’t want us to fail and advised us to ask God for his guidance in decisions we make in life. That hit close to home for me as I’ve got some serious decisions about a job, my business and my children I need to make soon, which I almost find overwhelming. I think I’ll take Pastor Floe’s advice about asking God for guidance.

I was impressed by the sincerity of the pastor, and the quality of his message and told him so when he finished up the study. He was raised in South Dakota which is where my mother was born, and where I spent a lot of time fund-raising for my own church. We exchanged some small talk, and the pastor thanked me for coming.

After a short break the Sunday Service began and the relatively small room started to fill with people. The band began to play and the congregation joined in the song. I was impressed. The music was, well, kind of like what Goldilocks might say: “Not too quiet, not too loud, it was just right.” So far, of the many churches I’ve attended, I found the music at Truth Tabernacle to be the best combination of acoustics, congregational singing, the people on stage, the spirit; everything seemed to fit. When I joined in singing, “God my Savior, God my Deliverer”, my eyes teared up.

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God My Savior

The sermon was given by a young man who I guessed was probably just beginning his preaching role at the church. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t seem to get much out of the sermon. Perhaps it was his young age, his inexperience, or maybe it was just me. But one point of his sermon touched my heart: it doesn’t matter where we go, God will be there.

The service ended. Some people thanked me for coming to church. I made a point of talking to a young man from Kenya, saying hello to a couple and their children that I know and to several others in the congregation.

It’s been said, “Some of the best things come in small packages.” Truth Tabernacle is one of those packages; pay them a visit someday. I hope you’ll find it rewarding and uplifting.